The good news for Chris Evert Lloyd in this year's Virginia Slims Championship was that she took Martina Navratilova to three sets. The bad news was that they were playing a best-of-five final - a rarity in women's tennis - so the one-time queen of the court was still unable to win even a set in losing to her powerful successor for the ninth straight time. The score: 6-3, 7-5, 6 -l.
The two combatants had prepared for what could have been a three-hour, five-set match. And many of the 15,309 spectators, a record for women's tennis, were murmuring ''upset'' at 5-5 in the second set. It appeared that Evert Lloyd's strong ground strokes and superior passing shots might finally unsettle the serve-and-volley game of Navratilova, as they did so easily in the early to mid-seventies.
But it was not to be. Navratilova's excellent court-covering ability, combined with her penetrating volleys allowed her to prevail in the seesaw second set. That virtually sealed the match as Evert's shots lost their zip thereafter.
''This should answer a lot of people's questions about whether I'm mentally tough,'' explained Navratilova after collecting the $125,000 winner's check. ''I didn't get down on myself when I missed a point, and I knew I had five sets, so there was no rush.''
Though the match went three straight sets, it was not without excitement. Many times Evert Lloyd would make an amazing passing shot, only to find Navratilova displaying her speed by intercepting it. Evert Lloyd would make a cross-court return that almost reached the TV cameras, only to see her opponent chase it down to hit a winner.
''She's moving great; she gets to so many shots,'' Chris said of the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion. ''It was a fast-paced match, with lots of reaction shots on both our parts.''
Navratilova agreed with her challenger that it was a match of reflex ability. ''And it was our most physical match as far as running and covering the court'' she added.
Martina had little trouble reaching the final. Her only scare came when doubles partner Pam Shriver challenged her in the semifinals. The third-ranked Shriver jumped to a quick 3-0 lead in the first set, but could not hold on and lost in the tiebreaker. The second set was close too, but despite her powerful serves, Shriver still came up on the short end 6-4.
Evert Lloyd got off to a shaky start in the tournament as she narrowly beat unseeded Kathy Jordan 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. After that, however, she was unchallenged until the final.
The tournament brought together the top 16 women's players in the world, based on their performance over the past 14 months. Navratilova, of course, easily had the best record during that stretch, winning 99 of 101 matches and 18 of 20 tournaments.
Depending on how one viewed it, the week-long Madison Square Garden extravaganza was either a carry-over shootout from the preceding year or the kickoff to the heart of the 1984 season. Either way, the biggest talk throughout the week centered around the best-of-five final, unheard of in women's tennis since 1902.
''I think the Grand Slam tournaments should have best-of-five for the women, but only in the final,'' Navratilova said. ''If all our matches were best-of-five, we'd never finish a tournament in one week!''
Evert Lloyd did not seem to mind a best-of-five either. ''I wasn't as panicked in the first set,'' she said. ''When I was down a break, I wasn't panicking. I had it in the back of my mind that I could pace myself more.
''After the third set I felt I could go another set, but unfortunately she won all three.''
Though admitting she must improve her approach to the net, Evert Lloyd will not dismiss her strengths. ''I can't abandon my game - the ground strokes,'' she said afterward. ''Today she had the shots and she had the breaks. I think she plays her best against me.''
''It's fun playing her,'' observed Navratilova. ''This is what it's all about - play well and play tight - and show people good tennis.''
The problem for Evert Lloyd is that the people have not seen her beat Navratilova since the Australian Open in 1982.
Her best chance to claim victory may come during this spring's French Open, assuming both players make the final, which hasn't happened since 1975. Evert Lloyd, the defending champion, has won the French five times and is probably still the world's best clay-court player. Navratilova's only Parisian triumph came in 1982, when she beat Andrea Jaeger.