<
>

One last match for Navratilova

PARIS -- Five hundred years ago this September, Michelangelo's Renaissance masterpiece "David" was unveiled in Florence, Italy.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Galleria dell'Accademia commissioned an ambitious and meticulous refurbishment. The statue was revealed on Monday and critics say the ancient marble's soft gray luster has been restored.

"It is if a thin gray veil had been lifted," observed Dr. Franca Falletti, the Accademia's director.

If only Martina Navratilova's reclamation project had gone so well.

After a 10-year absence, Navratilova returned Tuesday to the arena of Grand Slam singles at the French Open. Now 47, Navratilova lost 6-1, 6-3 to 19-year-old Gisela Dulko of Argentina. When Navratilova won her last French Open in 1984, Dulko -- like 17 others in the women's field here -- had yet to be born.

It would not be fair to suggest she was, well, statuesque but Navratilova had difficulty covering the court without a partner. Dulka was simply too strong and too swift.

"If you look at the score line, you'd say, 'That was a kill,' " Navratilova said. "But if you watched the match, I could have been up 4-3 in the first set. I couldn't convert game points. If I could have converted game points when I had the opportunity, we could still be out there in the third set.

"But I didn't."

"Today was great for me," said Dulko, who said Navratilova was an idol. "This experience I will never forget in my life. There are no words to say what it meant to play her -- and I beat her."

How old is Navratilova? Well, Swiss champion Martina Hingis, who was named for her, has already retired.

No one has won more singles matches (1,440) and titles (167), and her 11 French Open titles combining singles, doubles and mixed are second to the 13 of Margaret Smith Court. In recent years, however, doubles has been her forte. She won the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes last year at Wimbledon and will play all four Grand Slams.

In an attempt to improve her doubles game in her last competitive season, Navratilova started to think about playing singles. She lost two matches in April, to Milagros Sequera and Amy Frazier and when the French Tennis Federation, at Navratilova's request, offered her a wildcard into the 128-player singles draw, she took it.

In France, there was some criticism that she probably cost a young Frenchwoman a berth in the tournament. Navratilova sounded a tad defensive when she was asked about it after the match.

"I didn't choose the French, it sort of chose me," she said. "It's like, 'I'm playing last time around. Why not?' Did I diminish the tournament by playing out there today? I don't think so. I thought I was one of the best 128 players in the world.

"French TV guy asked me coming off the court, 'What do you say to the young player that didn't get in because you got the wildcard?' I think I earned it. If she won two French Opens and tried to get a wildcard at the age of 47, she'll probably get it, too. I didn't get a wildcard when I was 16. I earned my way onto it here."

When Navratilova plays, singles or doubles, it is still an event of sorts. The Baby Boomers remember her great matches with Chris Evert and Steffi Graf. They fairly ache for her success; somehow, if she can still compete they can't be too old, can they? While younger viewers hope to catch a glimpse of the legend she was in perhaps their only chance to ever watch her.

Coming into the match, Navratilova's singles record at Roland Garros was 51-10, but it is worth remembering her last appearance, in 1994, was a dismal 6-4, 6-4 loss to Miriam Oremans. Gisela Dulko may not be a household name, but she is a legitimate player. She was 26-14 entering the match and has been ranked as high as No. 58.

When the two walked onto Court No. 1, Navratilova could easily have been her mother. How old is Dulko's mother?

"Forty-seven," Dulko said, dissolving in laughter.

And while Navratilova displayed the fashion-forward backward hat and even, when she unleashed her first serve, an impressive bare midriff, she looked her age when Dulko worked her around the court.

Navratilova lost the first four games to Dulko before holding her serve in the fifth. Trying to diffuse Dulko's superior pace, Navratilova hit a lot of slices. Still, she lost the first set in 25 minutes and the only immediate question was whether or not she could last an hour.

But Navratilova kept grinding and at 2-all she actually broke Dulko's serve. A two-point sequence framed Navratilova's match. At 40-all, she showed some guile by faking an approach shot and chipping a little forehand for a sharply angled winner. But on the subsequent shot she tightened noticeably and sent an easy backhand long. In the pivotal game, serving at 3-4, Navratilova went down and came up covered with clay. After she cleaned herself up at the changeover bench, she couldn't seem to find her racket. The ballboy, smiling awkwardly, handed it to her.

Navratilova sent the last stroke, following a severe serve from Dulko, into the stands and jogged dutifully to net and kissed the Argentine on both cheeks.

Navratilova has asked for a wildcard into the singles draw at Eastbourne, the week before Wimbledon, but is waiting for tournament organizers to make a decision. Even though she's likely to receive one, prospects for a Wimbledon wildcard are less than promising.

This is the age of the aged athlete. The lure of big salaries and an unprecedented knowledge of conditioning and nutrition make it so.

Randy Johnson throws a perfect game at the age of 40. Reggie Miller, a wizened 38, throws a winning three-point shot at the Detroit Pistons. Roger Clemens, 41, leads the major leagues with a 7-0 start.

What would happen if they took 10 years off and tried to come back? Would they be able to make a living?

"Oh, yeah," Navratilova said. "I made $400,000 last year. Absolutely I could make a living. Thank God I don't have to -- but I could. Could definitely pay the bills."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.