Paris ready for Martina's third coming

May 20, 2004

Martina Navratilova
Photo - AFP

PARIS — Two-and-a-half years short of her 50th birthday, Martina Navratilova makes the second French Open singles comeback of her career next week with her appearance splitting opinion just as she has done since she made her debut here in 1973.

The holder of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, two of them on the clay of Roland Garros in 1982 and 1984, she was awarded a wildcard into the first round here by organisers sorely conscious of a WTA Tour which, outside of its top six, lacks serious pulling power.

"Martina wants to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her last French Open win," said tournament manager Stephane Simian.

But not everyone is pleased with the veteran's return.

"It's good for her. I just hope that they didn't just decide to give it to Martina and shunned some youngsters away," said Navratilova's fellow American Jennifer Capriati.

"She's a great champion, but you have to make way for the players coming through. But I'm sure they took that into consideration."

Aware of the strong emotions surrounding her return, Navratilova is keen to keep a low profile until her date on court next week.

She is stressing she doesn't want to take the limelight away from the other 127 players in the first round draw, most of whom weren't born when she was a quarter-finalist as a 16-year-old on debut in 1973.

Navratilova, with a record 167 singles titles to her name, insists one of the reasons for wanting to play in Paris is to improve her doubles game.

"Just practicing for the singles helps my doubles," she said. "So that's the idea behind it, I just wanted to get more match play and this is one way to do it."

Doubles occupies most of her time on tour partnering Leander Paes to the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year.

She is also under pressure to play singles at Wimbledon where she last played, and finished runner-up, in 1994.

"A lot of people are pushing me to play Wimbledon," Navratilova said. "I would play if it wasn't going to be a big deal.

"Chances are I will not be playing Wimbledon but chances are I will be playing at Eastbourne."

It was at the English south coast venue where she made an earlier singles comeback in 2002 where, having lost a bet with her trainer, she entered the tournament, defeated world number 22 Tatiana Panova and became the oldest woman ever to win a tour match.

She even fightened the life out of then world number three Daniela Hantuchova before succumbing in three sets.

Navratilova has already played singles twice this year losing first round matches in Amelia Island and Charleston to Milagros Sequera and Amy Frazier respectively.

Furthermore, making comebacks in Paris is familiar territory for her.

After finishing runner-up in 1988, she skipped the French Open until a one-off return in 1994 led to a first round exit at the hands of Miriam Oremans.

Fellow American Serena Williams, for one, is looking forward to the legend's reappearance.

"It's great for her, amazing," said the six-time Grand Slam winner. "If I'm still playing at that age, it would be unbelievable." – Sapa-AFP

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