Two years ago Martina Navratilova felt she got a monkey off her back by winning the US Open tennis championship on her 11th try. Hana Mandlikova perhaps got rid of a figurative chimpanzee of her own this year - the rap which claimed she couldn't sustain a top effort throughout such a long, grinding tournament. That notion certainly was shot through with holes when she culiminated a seven-match run to the women's title here with back-to-back victories over Chris Evert Lloyd and Navratilova.
She took out the top-seeded Evert Lloyd in the semifinals 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, then turned right around and beat Navratilova, the two-time defending champion, in Saturday's suspenseful final, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6.
When a reporter asked if these victories put the ``erratic tag'' to rest, Hana fairly bristled, ``You call me that. I do not call myself that.''
The label may inwardly have motivated her to disprove all those who hung it on her.
And what better place to do it than the Open, where the winner pockets $187,500 while playing before a center court crowd of 20,000 and millions of American and overseas TV viewers.
One country which sadly didn't get the telecast was Hana's own, Czechoslovakia. ``It was a pity my parents were not here, but I believe I can show the (video) tape to them,'' she said.
They in turn could share it with Navratilova's family, which has remained in Czechoslovakia despite Martina's defection to the United States at the 1975 Open.
Hana has become more Westernized herself. She spends much of her time in the States; owns a condominium in Florida at Boca West; and seems quite comfortable speaking English.
Even so, she remains a loyal citizen of her homeland, which means she is the first foreign female to capture the US crown since Australia's Margaret Court did it in 1973.
``That is a long time and makes it special, to be sure,'' she said upon learning of the historical signficance of her feat.
Asked if her win would be celebrated in Prague the way Boris Becker's Wimbledon victory was in West Germany, she answered with girlish exuberance, ``I don't know. I certainly hope so.''
Any parades that might be planned, though, will have to wait a couple of weeks until she fulfills a tournament commitment in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Navratilova and Evert Lloyd get back into action in tonight's exhibition match in Boston at the Longwood Cricket Club. What many expected to be a replay of the Open women's final now has turned into something of a delayed consolation event.
Entering the competition at the National Tennis Center, Navratilova and Evert Lloyd were thought to be far superior to the rest of the 128-woman field, even well ahead of the third-seeded Mandlikova, who owned 1985 victories over them both.
Despite such occasional results, Hana has remained something of an unfulfilled superstar in the eyes of the tennis world. Her pro career began in a brilliant blaze, but has faded in and out thereafter, the regular victim of concentration lapses.
In fact, until Saturday, her lone victories in Grand Slam events had come in the 1980 Australian and 1981 French Opens. The best she could do here at Flushing Meadow was finish as the runner-up twice, in 1980 and '82.
Since then she has only sporadically hit hot patches, the kind that renew comparisons between her fluid, athletic style and those of such former greats as Evonne Goolagong and Maria Bueno.
Unfortunately Hana sometimes talked and acted a bit on the arrogant side, with seemingly little respect for her rivals. At Wimbledon last year she said, ``When I'm at my best form I'm better than she [Navratilova] is.''
That, of course, is not the stuff of Dale Carnegie courses. Realizing she'd made a mistake, she privately apologized to Martina at last year's Open.
Such behavior comes with maturity, which the 23-year-old feels she keeps gaining.
``I'm not saying I'm all grown up yet; I think it takes a little bit longer,'' she said.
``When I came on the circuit I was like, `Here I am, nobody can touch me, I'm the best and whatever.' I always had heart for people, but I just didn't show it. Now I think I can understand people better.''
Despite being fairly advanced athletically at an early age, Hana feels the mental side has come more slowly than it has for her American colleagues.
``Americans grow much faster, they are quicker to develop mentally because they're more independent,'' she observed. ``My family always did everything for me, and it's taken time for me to realize I had to do these things on my own with a little help.''
Much of this help has come from her multilingual Dutch coach Betty Stove, a retired tour veteran.
Stove has been instrumental in pushing Hana to adopt a new mental and physical toughness, achieved partly through a ``boot camp'' training regimen earlier this year.
The dividends were quite evident here, especially in the final rounds, where she outlasted Kathy Jordan in a tough three-setter and defeated countrywoman Helena Sukova in two tension-packed sets (7-6, 7-5) to gain a semifinal berth.
The final was a real tennis watcher's delight, with the two most versatile players in the women's game going at one another with crisp serves, sharply angled volleys, drop shots, overheads -- the gamut.
It had to be one of the oddest finals ever played too, with Mandlikova threatening to ``run the table'' on her startled opponent by taking a 5-0 first set lead, only to be forced into a tiebreaker. Then it was Navratilova's turn to dominate, which she did in the second set, before the tightly contested finale, in which Hana won the tiebreaker 7 points to 2.
In what must have seemed a bitter irony for Navratilova, the American crowd clearly favored Mandlikova, probably because Open spectators love an underdog.
Admittedly, she played one of her best matches ever to win, but given her new attitude, more of the same could be on the way.
So now does she think she's come out from the long shadow cast by Navratilova?
With a twinkle she replied, ``Martina is not Czechoslovakian; she is an American. I cannot be in any shade.''