In the past year, Martina Navratilova underwent two emotional changes of life. First, to her horror, she turned 30, and she compounded her agony by losing the No. 1 world ranking.
Ever since, she has been placed in the position of having to apologize for the inevitable.
There is nothing Navratilova can do about her age and, in fact, she inched another step along the scale by celebrating her 31st birthday last month. But she expresses unshakeable confidence in her ability to amend the second calamity and reclaim the top ranking from Steffi Graf, a mere 18-year-old.
"I can live with being No. 2 if that's the best I can do, but I know I'm still a better player than Steffi is and I know I can beat her," Navratilova said. "She's got that aura of invincibility right now, but I think it slipped a little at the Open (when Navratilova beat her in the final) because people did see she can be beaten. It comes down to people being afraid of you so much--I had that for a couple of years.
"Obviously when you slip a little bit, you want to get it back. The farther you slip, the more you want to get it back. You slip a little bit and you wake up and say, 'uh, oh, it's time to go back to work.' It doesn't take much for me to get going. For a real champion you don't need that much outside inspiration, it really comes from within."
Except for two losses to Navratilova, in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Graf is unbeaten in 71 other matches this year. Two of those victories came over Navratilova, and the fifth and deciding match between the two can come in the final of the $1 million Virginia Slims Championships Nov. 22.
The tournament is limited to the top 16 on the season-long Virginia Slims Championships.
Regardless of the outcome of this season-ending competition starting Monday night, Graf has clinched the No. 1 ranking for 1987, ending a five-year reign by Navratilova. Except for a short period in 1980, no woman either than Navratilova and Chris Evert had been ranked No. 1 since November 1975.
Graf is in the tougher half of the draw, including third-ranked Evert, No. 5 Hana Mandlikova and No. 7 Helena Sukova. She opens against Zina Garrison, and if she wins, the 5-foot 8-inch West German next would play Sukova or Lori McNeil, whom she defeated in the U.S. Open semifinals.
"I'm really psyched up for the tournament," Graf said when the draw was held. "It's much easier to play now that I'm No. 1."
The bottom half of the draw includes No. 4 Pam Shriver, No. 6 Gabriela Sabatini and No. 8 Manuela Maleeva. Navratilova's opening opponent will be Catarina Lindqvist, who is recovering from mononucleosis.
Navratilova has won the Virginia Slims Championships all four times it has been staged, beating Graf in straight sets in the final last November. She has not lost a singles match in Madison Square Garden since 1982.
Still, there is always something to prove, and this time Navratilova wants to emphasize that age hasn't diminished her talent. She needs this tournament to provide a mental springboard for 1988 when she will renew her challenge for supremacy of women's tennis.
She also wants to deliver a message to all those voices that insist on reminding her of her age.
"That's all Chris and I get," Navratilova said. "Like Billie Jean (King) said, 'It's almost like they're trying to drive you out of the game.' They've been doing it to Jimmy (Connors) for years. They've been doing it to Chris for a couple of years. As soon as you hit 30, that's it. They say, 'What are you going to do now with the rest of your life? You're 30, it's time to get out. You can only go downhill now'."
Navratilova, with career earnings in excess of $12.6 million, has no timetable on how long she will continue to play competitive singles.
"I always said I'll play until I'm 30 and then I'll see, so I'm still seeing," she said. "How long I don't know. As long as I think I can improve and hit some shots better than I have in the past, I think that's as long as I'll be playing. As long as it's fun."