Navratilova's US Open victory puts her back in race for No. 1 spot

Just because Martina Navratilova had slipped to No. 2 in the world rankings didn't mean she needed to make any major transformations at the US Open tennis championships. The only real change she opted for was cosmetic, getting a new funky hairdo. The more important thing, a can-do attitude, was the same one she's worn in winning three other US titles, and was simply re-employed in gaining her fourth crown with a 7-6, 6-1 victory over West Germany's estimable 18-year-old, Steffi Graf.

``It wasn't a matter of convincing myself; I knew I could win,'' said Navratilova, who, on the whole, appeared to be having an off year before what happened at the National Tennis Center on a cool, slate-gray day unsuited for tennis. ``The way I was playing the second week of the tournament I would have been surprised if I didn't win.''

Graf was looking to offer convincing proof of what many suspected and the computer rankings mathematically confirmed recently - that she had overtaken Navratilova as the game's No. 1 player.

And Saturday's loss won't change that.

``The rankings say I'm still No. 1 and she's No. 2, and I'm not going to argue with that,'' said the disheartened pride of Bruehl, W. Germany.

She confessed, though, that this defeat was even more disappointing than the one at Wimbledon, where Navratilova beat her in the final for only Steffi's second loss of the year.

As for who is really the top women's player right now, it's a judgment call. They've split four head-to-head matches this year (Graf won at the French Open and in Florida), and Steffi has won more tournaments, but Martina has secured the more prestigious titles.

``She has great quantity and quality [in her results],'' says Martina, ``but I think I have better quality ... I like my year - let's put it that way.

In reply to those who have called it a bad year for her, Navratilova's only comment was, ``I'd like to have a bad year like this every year.''

She noted that this was the fourth time she has won Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year, ``which is pretty special,'' and that she didn't lose a set in this year's triumph.

Graf's frustrations stem from the fact that Navratilova keeps rising to the occasion to beat her in the really big matches - in the US Open semifinals last year, in the final of the Virginia Slims championship in November, in the Wimbledon final in July, and now at the US Open again.

The next big match in the blossoming Graf-Navratilova rivalry - and perhaps the one that decides their final 1987 ranking order - is expected to occur in New York Nov. 16-22, when a select group of top players meet in the annual season-concluding Slims championship.

Graf's sagging physical state Saturday led her and partner Gabriela Sabatini to withdraw from their doubles semifinal match with Navratilova and Pam Shriver right after the singles final, with Steffi saying she was too ill to play the match.

But Graf didn't use her condition as an excuse for losing to Navratilova, who simply conjured up all her technical and tactical powers of many years to outplay a still-maturing foe.

Martina, who was sidelined more than a month this summer with an injury, kept her young opponent guessing by interspersing net-rushing charges with baseline rallies. She tried to test the top seed's backhand returns and avoid her blazing forehand as much as possible.

Even before Navratilova put the finishing touches to this victory, her 17th in a Grand Slam final, the aura of invincibility that has sometimes surrounded Graf had begun to drop away. Lori McNeil certainly helped show the way for others when she extended Graf to three sets in a semifinal match that may have been the viewing highlight of the tournament. McNeil charged the net 93 times against Graf after upsetting third-seeded Chris Evert with much the same strategy.

Graf remains the most formidable new superstar in the women's game, yet her next stage of development could be a real challenge, Navratilova feels.

``She's got a great weapon in that forehand, but she's got to attack a little weakness, which is the backhand,'' Martina observes. ``The common problem is that you work on your weakness, and then your strength is not as good. So it will be interesting to see how much she can improve her backhand and still hold on to the forehand. Of course I'd love to be in her shoes; she has nice problems there.''

Sadly, the women's final was played with several thousand seats in the 19,000-seat center-court stadium empty. Normally this is the centerpiece of these marathon Saturday sessions, but because of threatening weather and a desire to complete both men's semifinals, the schedule was switched, putting the women in a day-long holding pattern that Navratilova considers unacceptable.

``It's ridiculous not to know when you're going on for the final of a Grand Slam tournament,'' she said.

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