One overriding question hovers over this year's US Open Tennis Championships: Can Martina Navratilova win her first singles crown? At most every other tournament in the world, hardly anyone takes a set from her. But things have always been different here, at least in September, where she's reached the finals just once in a decade of trying.
During this same period, Chris Evert Lloyd has been Ms. September as surely as Reggie Jackson is Mr. October in baseball. She's won the US title on six occasions, three times on clay at Forest Hills, and three times on the medium-pace hard courts of the present site in Flushing Meadow.
To all appearances, therefore, the defending champion looms as the major obstacle in Navratilova's way. But no women's winner has repeated since the Open moved to the National Tennis Center in 1978, and in four head-to-head matches this year, Evert Lloyd has lost convincingly to the world's current No. 1 player. In fact, Navratilova handed Chris her worst pro defeat in March, and has won in straight sets in all but their last meeting.
''Martina's not unbeatable,'' says Evert Lloyd, who has been trying out a lighter, more flexible racket. ''It's just that her game is now a notch above everyone else's.''
Chris is right on both counts. Kathy Horvath sprung an upset on Navratilova at the French Open to prove that Martina's not invincible. On the other hand, a 149-4 record since the beginning of 1982 clearly indicates Navratilova enjoys a wide gap between herself and most every other player.
If nothing else, her approach to tennis sets her apart. While other players have coaches, Martina employs a coterie of advisers, who help in everything from diet to strategy. Some observers have called this support system Team Navratilova, a term she doesn't like but which seems appropriate.
Regardless of how well prepared Martina may be, however, major events present uncommon challenges. Their very length - about twice that of regular tournaments - demands a high level of performance for a prolonged stretch. And unlike round-robins and lightweight events, all the stars show up, so there's no easy path to the finals.
No one's pampered either, as sometimes occurs on tour, so entrants better be able to cope with the big city, a night match here or there, and the jet airplanes that practically buzz center court flying in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport.
Adjusting to the rubberized asphalt surface is also required after a summer spent mostly on clay and grass. This gives Americans an advantage, since most grew up on hard courts. In fact, no foreigner has broken through to win since the Open moved to Flushing Meadow, where Evert Lloyd, Tracy Austin, John McEnroe , and Jimmy Connors account for all the singles titles.
A further characteristic of the men's competition is the onslaught of left-handed winners - nine straight on a variety of surfaces both here and at Forest Hills. Besides Connors, the defending champion, and McEnroe, who began a three-year reign in 1979, other southpaws included in this streak are Manuel Orantes and Guillermo Vilas.
Vilas is the focal point of a controversy that threatens the integrity of the men's game. In June he was suspended for one year and fined $20,000 by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council for allegedly accepting under-the-table appearance money at a Rotterdam tournament, a rather common practice insiders say. He has appealed, and will play here, but the whole question of guarantees and their impact on the sport is certain to be discussed widely, if sometimes quietly, in the next weeks and months.
For now, however, fans care about tennis, pure and simple. And besides the aforementioned champions, they'll come to see the new wave of talent that's knocking on the door.
Precocious teen-agers are always surfacing in the women's field. This year will be no different, with Hungarian Andrea Temesvari, Canadian Carling Bassett, and American Zina Garrison most likely to earn wide acclaim. Temesvari looks particularly capable of something big based on victories at the Italian Open and US Clay Court Championships.
Nineteen-year-old Jimmy Arias, armed with a scorching forehand, has duplicated Temesvari's effort on the men's circuit. Some have questioned his stamina, however, doubting he's ready for a major breakthrough at the Open, where the men play best-of-five rather than best-of-three matches.
Sweden's Mats Wilander and France's Yannick Noah are also young and restless, and perhaps a bit more threatening at this point. Their seeding tells you that. Noah, the French Open champion, is seeded fourth behind McEnroe, Ivan Lendl (who is still seeking his first Grand Slam victory), and Connors. Wilander, who one year ago at the French Open became the youngest player ever to win a Grand Slam tournament, is fifth.
Though noted for his strong play on clay, Wilander enters the Open on the heels of an impressive hardcourt win, in which he knocked off both McEnroe and Lendl in straight sets. Wilander, then, could be a dark horse to win the title that eluded his retired countryman, Bjorn Borg.
Two other players who could spoil things for the favorites are Jose-Luis Clerc among the men and Pam Shriver among the women.