It's been 10 years since tennis legend Martina Navratilova last played a singles match at Roland Garros in Paris. But the 47-year-old, who has won 167 singles and 173 doubles titles, including 18 Grand Slams, is about to step on to the fabled red clay courts at the French Open once again.
Ms. Navratilova's singles comeback, at an age when most pro athletes have already retired, is nothing short of remarkable. Almost all of her fellow competitors were not even born when she made her tour debut in 1973.
"Martina's a living legend with an incredible story," says Larry Scott, chairman and chief executive officer of the Women's Tennis Association. "She's such an important part of the women's game of tennis and she continues to get an unbelievable reception from fans."
Comebacks for living legends have had mixed results. While Michael Jordan's first comeback with the Chicago Bulls was an unqualified success, his second return from retirement with the Washington Wizards was less than "Air- worthy." He retired for good at age 40.
By contrast, the return of hockey's Mario Lemieux has been a showcase for the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins all-star retired as an active player for 44 months before making a comeback in December 2000. Despite health problems, including a bout with Hodgkin's disease, Mr. Lemieux, a six- time scoring champion and three-time MVP, is still considered one of the NHL's most complete players. At age 38, he was just named captain of Team Canada in this fall's World Cup.
Roger Clemens was retired for less than six months from the New York Yankees, before coming back to pitch this year for his hometown Houston Astros. The 41-year-old, with a 7-0 record so far, has paid huge dividends for Houston's $5 million investment and is a likely starter for Major League Baseball's All-Star game in July.
Fans love these comebacks. Doubles tennis does not generally get the same attention or level of interest as the singles tour, but when Martina is on the court, it has been a different story.
"She's been wonderfully competitive in doubles," says the WTA's Larry Scott. "Martina has an amazing respect and appreciation for the sport. Fans, in turn, have an amazing respect and appreciation for her."
But Navratilova's Grand Slam singles return may not get the same reaction from competitors. When she made her tour doubles comeback in 2000, six years after retiring, some in the locker room saw that comeback as "a freak show." Perhaps trying to deflect that type of criticism, Navratilova has played down her latest revival, saying one of the reasons for wanting to play in Paris was to improve her doubles game.
"Just practicing for the singles helps my doubles," she told reporters following a second-round doubles defeat at a tournament last week in Rome. "So that's the idea behind it. I just wanted to get more match play and this is one way to do it." Navratilova has said she will retire from all competitive tennis at the end of 2004.
Players on the tour cannot help respecting Navratilova's storied career. She retired as the most accomplished singles player in WTA history, setting career records with 1,438 wins in 1,650 matches and $20,344,061 in prize money. In 2000, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And last year, she teamed up with Leander Paes in mixed doubles to win her 20th Wimbledon title - the oldest champion at one of tennis's four Grand Slams.
Serena Williams, the top seed at Roland Garros, welcomed Navratilova's return. "It's great for her, amazing," said the six-time Grand Slam winner at a press conference in Rome. "If I could even think about playing tennis at that age, it would be great."
But Jennifer Capriati, winner of three Grand Slams including the 2001 title at Roland Garros, was not so enthusiastic. "Good for her," Ms. Capriati told reporters at the Italian Open. "I just hope that instead of some youngsters that are upcoming, they haven't shunned them away and just decided to give it to Martina. I understand her being a great champion, but you've got to make way for new players coming up, for the future. But I'm sure they took that into consideration."
French Open organizers said they awarded a wild card to the Hall of Famer because she is still competitive in doubles. "She will draw a crowd, but we didn't do it for that," says tournament spokesman Christophe Proust. "She represents something huge for women's tennis. She's a genuine monument."
As for women's tennis most famous left-hander, she's ignoring the criticism and simply preparing for her first-round match at Roland Garros and the two-week tournament that begins Monday.
"What is there to be afraid of? Losing? We're playing tennis; it's not like I'm getting into a ring with Mike Tyson. Then I'd be afraid," Navratilova said after playing a doubles match at the Italian Open. "Tennis is not a contact sport, and I've never been afraid in my life. I'm certainly not going to start now."