Act II of Navratilova's career ends with a win

NEW YORK -- Chapter Two of Martina Navratilova's career ended here Saturday night with a U.S. Open mixed doubles championship, making her one of the few great athletes in history to go out with a win. She just had to retire twice to do it.

This interlude was considerably shorter but arguably sweeter than Chapter One, in which the heroine of the story won 167 singles titles, more than any woman or man who ever played the game. Navratilova has made her point.

"You can do great things regardless of your age if you just believe and, you know, go for it," she said. "Don't get limited by people that say, 'No, you can't do that because you're too old or because you're heavy or you're not an athlete.' Whatever your limitations might be, don't let them define you. I didn't let it define me."

Navratilova's comeback began when she decided to play a limited schedule in the 2000 season at age 43 after spending three seasons on the sidelines. She won a dozen women's doubles titles -- seven in 2003 alone -- with a half-dozen different partners. She won mixed doubles championships at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and went deep into the women's and mixed doubles draws in a bunch of other Grand Slams.

She played in her first Olympics. She stretched her Fed Cup record to 40-0 before a loss in a final, meaningless match in 2004 marred her perfect sheet. She added "oldest ever" to just about everything she did.

"Now I feel like I can't play any better unless I just give my life up and just play tennis," Navratilova said. "So that's why I'm giving up tennis, because, you know, I want to have more of my life back together."

Corporate America, which once spurned her because she was gay and a foreigner and Not Chrissie, gave her some love during her comeback.

So did the fans.

"Every time we walked on the court, it was like a rock concert," said current world doubles No. 1 Lisa Raymond, who paired with Navratilova for parts of the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"It was tough to get used to that at first, but I loved the fact that I had to deal with that pressure. I think it made me a better player, a better teammate. I had to kind of really rise to the occasion day in and day out."

Navratilova's name is now etched on a bronze plaque mounted on a granite block in the Court of Champions on the grounds here at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, though there are still some who aren't convinced this retirement business is really set in stone.

She tried to quash that Saturday night after she and mixed doubles partner Bob Bryan beat Czech pair Martin Damm and Kveta Peschke 6-2, 6-3 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"This was the last match," Navratilova said. "No more. No more. You can say 'definitely.' It's not 'allegedly.' This is definite."

It's easy to forget that Navratilova will turn 50 next month when you see her digging for shots and muttering to herself when she misses one, competitive fangs bared to the end. In one mixed doubles match last week, she chased a ball so hard that her momentum carried her into the stands.

There's no question Navratilova tried to choreograph a win for her 29th and final U.S. Open. She hand-picked the gifted Petrova for women's doubles. "I wish I had her a couple years ago -- we could have done some damage," Navratilova said.

She sent Bryan a summons via text message earlier this year, saying simply, "I want to play my last Grand Slam with you." The slightly awestruck Bryan answered the bell. He and his twin brother Mike know a little something about pressure, having won Grand Slams on every surface, but Bob said he was seldom more nervous than in his matches with Navratilova at the French Open and here in Flushing Meadows.

Part of that has to do with Navratilova's extraordinarily high standards, even in mixed doubles, a competitive lark for most players.

"I usually just walk out there and say 'Gimme the balls, let's go,'" Bryan said. "She's coming out there with 15 different things and strategies to execute.

"You know, she doesn't have the big power, I was blessed with being 6-4, and she's doing it with a 90-mile-per-hour serve and with her brain and her reflexes. It's something maybe I can add to my game."

Bryan thinks Navratilova could play at this level at least another five years. Raymond said she thinks Navratilova is "serving bigger than when she first came back." Elegant former champion Virginia Wade watched Navratilova from the broadcast booth this season and also gave her high marks.

"Normally, she's the best player on the court," Wade said.

"Every time we walked on the court, it was like a rock concert."
Lisa Raymond

"There have been a lot of really good players out there and she's had some good wins. It may say more about the fact that some of these good young players aren't great doubles players, but she's been beating some serious players."

Yet her contemporaries know she's making a lot of the hard ones look easy.

"She talks a lot about how ferociously these players today are hitting the ball," said commentator and former pro Mary Carillo. "And, it's true, the equipment changes the dynamic. She can still play beautiful tennis but, to be honest, she's getting pounded.

"I think, at a certain point, you have to see the end. I think it's time for her to move along. And, finally, she's good with that."

Navratilova said she wasn't bored during her hiatus, which lasted from 1997 through '99. She earned her pilot's license, built furniture, wrote mysteries, shot photographs in Africa and mounted an exhibition in Prague. Yet we should have known she had too much edge to stay away from the game on the night she helped open brand-new Ashe Stadium in 1997.

Former doubles partner Pam Shriver cornered her before the ceremony on live television to ask about her most memorable U.S. Open moments. Navratilova, holding a glass of something-or-other in her hand, fondly replied "Losing to you, [expletive]," prompting collective hysteria in the press room.

But Navratilova didn't come back to avenge past defeats. She didn't come back to cash in on her second-wind popularity, fueled by a combination of societal progress and nostalgia for tennis' golden era. That took her by surprise.

"What I'm getting from the crowd I never got in my life, even the last couple years on the tour," she said at the 2000 Open. "I didn't expect that, but it's there."

Navratilova came back because she could. She was fit enough and hungry enough to keep learning about partners and opponents and ways to win, even though she couldn't play singles against the best in the world anymore. No senior tour could have contained that desire.

"I want to play with the real guys, you know, with the young kids," she said at the 2000 U.S. Open. "It's fun to tap into another generation, be on the court with them. … Tennis feeds my soul, there's no question about it."

It fed those who watched her, too, including one of the most passionate players of all time.

"She's the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived," said Billie Jean King, with whom Navratilova won Wimbledon and U.S. Open doubles titles. "I personally will miss watching her play. Nobody volleys better than she does. Someone her age still playing has been very inspirational to many people, not only for the oldsters but the youngsters.

"When you think about her, you think about staying healthy. She's someone who is very comfortable in her own skin, about her sexuality, which I think is good for others to see."

Navratilova's most recent book is a non-fiction work called "Shape Your Self," a common-sense guide to diet, exercise and mental strategies for staying fit in middle age. She can speak and act with great authority on the subject, and that, rather than the late-in-life tournament wins, is the most important legacy left by her comeback.

As more and more people in her adopted country sink into sedentary stasis, she demonstrated that "you can stay fit and healthy and not have to sink into a sofa somewhere," Wade said.

Carillo summed it up a bit differently.

"She's so fit that she has a half-glass of wine and she gets buzzed," Carillo said.

Navratilova mentioned that it might be nice to kick back and have a beer to celebrate her win and not have to worry about practice the next morning. Then again, she might have just crashed. It was after midnight, well after her usual bedtime, when her press conference concluded.

In 2003, Navratilova became the oldest-ever Grand Slam champion when she won the Australian Open mixed doubles title at age 46. Her partner, Leander Paes, was born in 1973, the same year that she won her first Slam title.

She ruminated on the symmetry after that victory. "When I was growing up, I wanted to be the youngest to win something, not the oldest," Navratilova said.

Sorry, Granny. Too late.

Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.