February 11, 1994: The day Martina Navratilova played in Chicago for the last time
- 11 Feb 2021
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, February 11, 1994, for her last appearance at the Chicago Open, a tournament she had won 12 times, Martina Navratilova was defeated in the quarter-finals by Magdalena Maleeva (6-4, 6-3). The former world No 1 was so disappointed with her performance that she left the court without attending the farewell ceremony held by the tournament in her honour.
Martina Navratilova, born in 1956, was, according to Billie Jean King, “the greatest singles, doubles, and mixed doubles player who ever lived,”. Since 1968 when the Open Era began, no male or female player won more singles tournaments than Navratilova (167), doubles events (177), or matches (2,189). Left-handed, she played serve and volley like no one before. According to her rival Chris Evert, she took fitness to a new level in women’s tennis, introducing the idea of cross-training, playing other sports such as basketball in order to improve her physical condition. Navratilova had claimed a total of 18 Grand Slam titles in singles, with a record of nine Wimbledon crowns, six of them having been won successively between 1982 and 1987. In 1994, she had already accumulated 31 Grand Slam crowns in doubles and seven in mixed doubles. She only missed the mixed doubles Australian Open title to complete the Boxed Set Grand Slam, meaning winning all the four events in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. She also held a record of six consecutive Grand Slam titles between Wimbledon 1983 and the US Open 1984 (back then, the Australian Open was played in December), and had secured the world No 1 spot for 332 weeks, a record at the time. In February 1994, she was still world No 3.
Magdalena Maleeva, born 1975, was the youngest of an incredible tennis family, her two sisters being professional players as well: Manuela (best-ranked No 3 in the world), and Katerina (best-ranked No 6). Her breakthrough year on the Tour was 1992, when she claimed her first title, in San Marino (defeating Federica Bonsignori in the final, 7-6, 6-4) before reaching the quarter-finals at the US Open (defeated by her sister Manuela, 6-2, 5-3, ret.). In 1993, she reached the fourth round in all the Grand Slams except Wimbledon, and in February 1994, she was world No 13.
The Chicago Virginia Slims Open was established in 1971 and held on indoor carpet at the UIC Pavilion, a multi-purpose arena which opened in 1982. Navratilova held the record of the most titles claimed in Chicago, having already lifted the trophy 12 times.
Martina Navratilova’s appearance at the 1994 Chicago Virginia Slims was special, as the American had already announced that 1994 was her final year on the tour. The Chicago Open was one of her favourite tournaments, which she had won 12 times, more than any other player. She might have been close from retirement, but 37-year Navratilova was still world No 3, and she meant to make her farewell tour in style. She had skipped the Australian Open, but in her first tournament, in Tokyo, she reached the final, where she was only defeated by world No 1, Steffi Graf (6-2, 6-4). “I’d have to say this year will be a total blast, that’s my main goal, have a lot of fun, show off a little on the court,” she had declared, according to The Chicago Tribune, but deep down, she still had high expectations. “The best way to go out would be to win every single tournament I entered, but I suppose to win a sprinkling of tournaments, a Grand Slam…”
In the Chicago quarter-finals, she faced the youngest of the Maleeva family, Magdalena, at 18 years old. The Bulgarian had defeated the former world No 1 at the 1992 US Open (6-4 0-6 6-3), but since then, Navratilova had prevailed in her their other encounters. This time though, Maleeva delivered a solid performance, while the nine-time Wimbledon champion played far from her usual standards. The Bulgarian easily prevailed, 6-4, 6-3.
Navratilova, distraught after this unexpected loss in a tournament so dear to her heart, was unable to attend a ceremony held to honour her longevity. “I was OK when I lost the match, but then when I walked off some guy said, `Thank you, Martina,’ and I just. . . ” said Navratilova. “I really did not quite take it seriously enough in the beginning, and in the second set I was on my heels the whole time.”
“If this tournament is any indication, I’ll be crying after every match I play,” she said.
The highlight of Navratilova’s farewell tour would be Wimbledon, Wimbledon, where she would reach the final, defeated by Conchita Martinez in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. This time she would share much more with the public and will receive the standing ovation she deserved after nine titles claimed at the All England Club.
In 2000, Navratilova would come back on the tour, playing essentially doubles, and by winning the mixed doubles at the 2003 Australian Open, partnering Leander Paes, she would complete the Boxed Grand Slam and become the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time, at 46. In 2004, she would receive a controversial wild card into the Wimbledon single’s draw. Now 47, she would incredibly win her first round 6-0, 6-2 against world No 102 Catalina Castano, before losing to Gisela Dulko, No 59, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. In 2006, a few weeks from her 50th birthday, she would claim the mixed doubles title at the US Open, partnering Bob Bryan, and finish her career on a victory.
Magdalena Maleeva would climb as high as world No 4, in January 1996, having won three tournaments in 1995, her best season on the Tour.