Needing every bit of her tremendous talent and even a little luck Saturday, defending champion Martina Navratilova narrowly defeated Hana Mandlikova, 7-5, 7-6, to advance to the final of the $500,000 Virginia Slims Tennis Championships.
Today, Navratilova will face fifth-seeded Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia in an unusual best-of-five-sets title match. Sukova defeated Kathy Rinaldi, 6-4, 6-2, Saturday in the other semifinal.
The winner will receive $125,000, the largest purse in women's tennis. The runner-up gets $60,000.
Navratilova won by the slimmest of margins. Mandlikova, who defeated the top-ranked Navratilova in their last meeting, had a set point in both sets.
But Navratilova showed the Madison Square Garden crowd of 15,786--the largest single-session crowd ever to watch women's tennis--why she is considered one of the great players in the history of the game. Time and again, when it appeared Mandlikova was about to close out a set, Navratilova would somehow come up with a winner.
"I wanted it bad," Navratilova said. "I'm just happy I got through."
It was in the 10th game of the first set that Mandlikova suffered her first major setback. Serving at 30-15, she could have reached set point. Instead, she double-faulted to 30-30. Two points later, Navratilova had the break and had pulled to 4-5.
In the next game, Mandlikova, the No. 3-seeded player, reached set point, but Navratilova pulled back to deuce and closed out the game when Mandlikova hit a forehand service return long.
Navratilova lost only one point in the next two games and closed out the opening set with an ace.
There were only two service breaks in the second set, and the two battled into a tiebreaker. Navratilova immediately jumped out in front. Then, as they had throughout the afternoon, they fought on even terms.
Mandlikova saved match point at 6-5 and then had a chance to win the set at 7-6. But that's when luck came into it.
Mandlikova, who had been returning brilliantly the entire match, sent what appeared to be a miss-hit backhand service return cross-court, almost into the crowd.
"She broke a string on her racket then," Navratilova said. "With a broken string, the racket is like a Trampoline."
Two points later, Navratilova closed out the tiebreaker, 9-7, to move into the championship match.
"We both were lucky," Navratilova said. "When I was lucky was when she broke her string in the second-set tiebreaker."