- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — The woman Martina Navratilova beat in her 1973 Wimbledon debut was back at the All England Club yesterday to watch her daughter’s first-round match.

Navratilova, all of 47, was back, too. Except she was playing — yes, playing! — on the adjacent court. And, oh, how she performed.

Charging the net at every opportunity, snapping volleys, even throwing in an ace for good measure, Navratilova beat 24-year-old Catalina Castano of Colombia 6-0, 6-1 yesterday to become the oldest woman since 1922 to win a match at Wimbledon.

It was her first singles competition here in a decade, and it was as if she never left.

“When people say, ‘Why are you doing it?’ I guess the answer is: ‘Because I still can.’ Bottom line,” said Navratilova, whose 18 Grand Slam singles titles include a record nine at Wimbledon.

She won 30 of 40 points at the net with serve-and-volley tennis that’s a dying art. Valuing placement over power, Navratilova cut volleys at angles a pool shark would appreciate, spun slices that died at Castano’s feet and never let her opponent get within a point of winning a game through the first 11.

“This definitely is a deja vu,” Navratilova said.

Goran Ivanisevic also must have felt that way. Playing at Wimbledon for the first time since winning the 2001 championship, Ivanisevic knocked off No.31 Mikhail Youznhy 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Hounded by injuries to his shoulder, elbow and knee, Ivanisevic was just 2-9 this season and will retire after Wimbledon.

Talking about Navratilova, the 32-year-old Croat said: “I cannot compare myself. She is other level. She is from other planet.”

On a rainy Day 1, four other past Wimbledon champions won in straight sets: Venus Williams (the winner in 2000-01), Lindsay Davenport (1999), Roger Federer (2003) and Lleyton Hewitt (2002). Williams, trying to reach a fifth straight final at the grass-court Grand Slam, beat Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian 6-3, 6-0, compiling 26 winners to only 11 unforced errors.

Williams dismissed the idea that Navratilova’s victory over the 102nd-ranked Castano reflects poorly on the quality of play on the WTA Tour.

“It reflects well on Martina,” Williams said. “She’s in wonderful shape. She understands the game probably more than ever at this point.”

After dominating Castano, Navratilova left Court 2 to walk the 50 yards across the grounds and up a flight of stairs to the locker room. She was besieged by boys, girls, men and women who were collecting autographs, snapping photos and using video cameras.

When Castano was 17 and playing in the junior French Open, she sidled up to Navratilova and sheepishly asked if they could have a photo taken together, just like any other fan. Now Castano played her at Wimbledon, a loss she’ll never forget.

Navratilova recalled her first match at the All England Club, a victory over Christine Janes, whose daughter Amanda lost to No.11 Ai Sugiyama on Court 3 yesterday.

“The older you get, the worse it gets,” Navratilova said. “I was much more nervous today than I was for that first one.”

It helped that Navratilova wasn’t exactly facing Steffi Graf.

Navratilova owns 167 singles titles, Castano zero. Navratilova was ranked No.1 for 331 weeks in the 1970s and 1980s; Castano reached No.97 for two weeks. Navratilova is 144-13 on grass, the best mark ever; Castano is 0-4.

Still, Castano said: “It’s almost like playing my mom.”

Navratilova retired in 1994, then returned as a doubles player in 2000. She heard complaints when she played singles at a 2002 Wimbledon tuneup event (beating a player ranked 22nd). Young players wondered aloud whether it wouldn’t be better for the ol’ left-hander to enjoy retirement rather than take a spot in the draw.

Similar concerns were voiced when Navratilova was given a French Open wild card last month and lost in the first round to Gisela Dulko, a 19-year-old Argentine who just happens to be her next opponent at Wimbledon.

“Are they still saying it?” Navratilova said. “I don’t think so.”

Addressing critics who wondered if she can compete, Navratilova said: “You guys didn’t believe me. Now do you believe me?”

She’s never let others dictate her thoughts or actions. At 18, she left her parents and defected from Czechoslovakia. For years, she was made to feel like an outsider because of her homosexuality and candidness. Sponsors stayed away.

Nowadays, in her final season, it’s not about winning, losing or breaking records.

“I’ve been saying this all along: Playing tennis is for the fans. It’s not for anyone else,” Navratilova said. “It’s for the people to enjoy it.”

The spectators, Navratilova and Ivanisevic clearly reveled in their returns.

“I won my Wimbledon. I just came here to say, ‘Goodbye’ and have fun,” Ivanisevic said.

He wagged a finger at the ball when one drop shot didn’t clear the net, pretended to argue a line call before waving his hand to let everyone know he was kidding, and blew kisses or lifted his arms to give thanks after five net-cords went his way.

Navratilova flexed her biceps to the crowd after she laced an ace in the second set’s opening game, drawing laughter. When the match ended, she sat back in her chair and chuckled, shaking her head.

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