Martina Navratilova has reached that point in women's professional tennis where the only person who can really beat her is - well, herself! Oh, Chris Evert Lloyd or Tracy Austin sometimes rise up to defeat her in a tournament final. But when Navratilova is hitting all out and the ball is staying in the court, nobody can touch her for power, speed, and endurance.
Certainly that's been the case this year. She has played four tour events, won each, and not dropped a set in 21 matches. In her latest final, played in Dallas, she defeated Evert Lloyd 6-4, 6-0 in a shockingly lopsided match.Now it's on to New York, where Navratilova will be the favorite to win this week's $ 350,000 tournament.
Since 1979, when Martina decided to stop overeating, got both her game and her head together, and paid more attention to her conditioning, she has won 13 of 20 matches from Evert Lloyd, including the 1979 and 1982 Wimbledon finals.
They also played a memorable US Open semifinal in '81 that Navratilova finally took 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. Even as early as the first set, the crowd had sensed the match would be extra special.
During a recent chat with Martina in the press room of the Los Angeles Forum, she talked about playing Evert Lloyd over the years. The two players, incidentally, are friends and former doubles partners.
''When I first came on the pro tour in 1973, Chris had already been there awhile and was a lot more consistent than I was,'' Navratilova told me. ''I was new to this country; new to this way of life; and I was also still learning as a player. The only coach I'd ever really had was my father and the idea of a regular conditioning program never even occurred to me.
''The reason I've had so much success against Chris in our last 20 matches is partly because I am so much more consistent now and partly because I have learned to play her better,'' Martina continued. ''I don't give her what she wants, either in the way of shots or pace. Yet I don't prepare any differently for Chris than I do for Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger.''
What does it take to beat this naturalized American citizen, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1975?
''To beat me, a baseline player would have to consistently thread the needle with her shots,'' Martina said. ''The thing is, I always feel I'm in control against any baseline player, both when I serve and when I receive.
''Either way I know that the person on the other side of the court isn't going to come to the net against me and force me to hit tougher shots. You have no idea what this does for my confidence.
''But I don't want anyone to think that I'm criticizing the way Chris plays, because for her the baseline game has been very successful. Chris is still the toughest opponent out there for me. She's consistent; she has great strokes; she doesn't get rattled; and basically we bring out the best in each other.''
Navratilova, who is as rugged and strong as any female athlete you'll ever see (whether the sport is tennis, softball, or gymnastics), has an arsenal of shots that seems to keep getting better and better. She has also learned to deal realistically with the mental side of the game.
''Because there are so many tournaments now and so much travel, nobody plays to their potential all the time,'' Martina said. ''There are just too many good young players out there who keep improving and too many matches not to have an occasional letdown.
''I also go through periods when my game isn't all there and I know it and that's frustrating. I just hope when this happens I'm not scheduled to meet one of the top players on the tour.''
Asked to talk about what makes her game so strong, Navratilova replied: ''One of the reasons I have won so often is because I get to the ball so much quicker than most of my opponents. With more time to get set, my return shots are generally well hit and deep.
''When I first came on the tour, I really didn't have a very good backhand,'' she added. ''Oh, I would get the ball back, maybe even with some topspin on it, but then it seemed like I was always out of position for whatever came next. It's something I had to work very hard to improve. But now I feel very, very comfortable with my backhand.''
In fact, she feels good about all her shots, and expects to keep them grooved for quite some time. ''I think I can probably maintain the level of my current game for at least another five or six years,'' she said.