Article:Navratilova's seniority has few privileges
By Chris Clarey-New York Times
Paris, May 25-There are players at this years French Open who did not appreciate Navratilova's competing in singles here at the boundary stretching age of 47. They wanted her to stay on the doubles court and leave the precious wild cards and the sport's grandest stage to the much-younger set.
But the fans gathered at the cozy confines of Court 1 on Tuesday did not seem to share that line of reasoning. They gave Navratilova a long, warm welcome as she walked out to play singles in a Grand Slam for the first time in ten years. Amd although she could wrest only four games from Gisela Dulko, an Argentine 28 years her junior, Navratilova was given another extended round of applause as she shuffled off a loser.
"The crowd was great; I just wanted to stay out there a bit longer to give them something to cheer about," Navratilova said after her 6-1 6-3 loss. "I had some moments of brilliance, but they were few and far between, unfortunately."
Still, it was far from an embarrassment. Though there were ample signs of rust and age, including late forehands, errant service tosses, and a nasty tumble in the second set, there were also examples of vintage Navratilova-a technically perfect overhead here, a crisply chipped backhand approach shot or smooth split step there-that generated rumbles of recognition from the stands.
But for all Navratilova's hustling, lunging attempts to transform this conversation piece into a competitive match, it never quite superseded nostalgia. The only chance for more came in the second set, when Navratilova broke Dulko's serve to take a 3-2 lead. But the 19 year old Dulko won the next four games to close out her first victory in a Grand Slam tournament. She needs 303 more to catch up with Navratilova.
"I think she played great," Dulko said. "She's one of my idols. It was weird because in the beginning I wasn't nervous at all, but then at the end to finish the match, I start to think a little bit I was playing against HER."
It was also weird for Dulko to realize that her mother is the same age as Navratilova. "That's a first for one of my opponents," Dulko said.
Navratilova has been around so long that even players named after her, like Martina Hingis, have retired. Still, she would have liked to play better, much better.
"I was playing the same rhythm I used to play, but I didn't have to think so hard then," Navratilova said. "Keep in mind, this is my fifth match in ten years, so of course I'm not match sharp. So things happened very quickly." While Navratilova took a self-critical approach, others took a wide-eyed tack.
"I was just thinking, how do you play at that age?" said second-seeded Serena Williams, who watched the beginning of Navratilova's match before marching out to win her own. "She's really an amazing athlete, amazing woman."
But no so amazing an athlete that she can beat up on the younger players in singles. Since her comeback to the women's tour in 2000, Navratilova has gradually remade herself into a major force in doubles, rising into the top 10. In 2002, after losing a bet with her coach, she entered the singles in Eastbourne, England, and defeated the world's 22nd-ranked player, Tatiana Panova of Russia, and pushed Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, then ranked 12th, to three sets.
But that was on grass, the surface on which Navratilova won a record nine Wimbledon singles titles. This singles comeback has come on clay, not the place to thrive for a champion who might have lost a step, and she is now 0-3 this spring after losing in the first round in Amelia Island, Fla; in Charleston, S.C.; and in Paris.
Why is an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion putting herself through this? "The reason I wanted to play singles was to improve my doubles game, to really be a better player period," she said.
She is not the oldest woman to play singles at this level. That would be Blanche Bingley of Britain, a six-time Wimbledon champion who reaches the semifinals there at age 48 and played her final match at the All England Club at age 49 in 1913-at a time when tennis was much more garden party than cutthroat business.
For confirmation of the state of the game, consider some of the reactions to Navratilova's wild-card entry. "She's got no reason to be here," the French player Emelie Loit said. "It's so sad to give a wild card to a 47-year old woman. A young French player had to miss the tournament because of her."
Loit was referring to Capucine Rousseau, the French teenager who would have been given Navratilova's spot in the draw. But Navratilova, even in convincing defeat, was in no mood to apologize.
"I think I earned it," she said. "If she wins two French Opens and tries to get a wild card at the age of 47, she'll probably get it too. I didn't get a wild card when I was 16. I earned my way.
The question now is if she will ask to be present next month at Wimbledon, where she has not played singles since reaching the final in 1994.