May 23rd, 1994: The day Martina Navratilova said her (first) goodbye at Roland-Garros and broke her racquet
- 23 May 2020
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On this day, the 23rd May, 1994, Martina Navratilova, aged 37 and still No 4 in the world, lost to Miriam Oremans – ranked No 54 – 6-4, 6-4, in the first round at Roland-Garros. As 1994 was her farewell season, she had come to play in Paris for the first time since 1988. A true legend of her sport, twice champion and four times runner-up in Roland-Garros in the 1980s, it was exciting for the French crowd to have her back and it was a big shock to see her lose so early in the tournament, especially considering she hadn’t lost in a first round of a Grand Slam tournament since 1976.
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).
Navratilova had claimed a total of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, with a record nine Wimbledon crowns, six of them successively between 1982 and 1987. In 1994, she had already accumulated 31 Grand Slam doubles titles, as well as seven in mixed doubles. Only the mixed doubles Australian Open title was missing from a Boxed Set of Grand Slams; winning all the four events in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
She also held a record of six consecutive Grand Slam titles between Wimbledon in 1983 and the US Open in 1984 (back then, the Australian Open was played in December), and she had secured the world No 1 spot for 332 weeks, a record at the time.
Navratilova, left-handed, played serve and volley like no one before. According to her greatest 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’s career was strongly impacted by her rivalry with Evert, whom she faced a record 80 times through her career, holding a 43-37 lead, although Evert had defeated her in 21 of their first 25 encounters. Their matches were made even more dramatic by their opposite styles, Martina attacking the net all the time while Chris was known for her more defensive game. In fact, at Roland-Garros, they had faced each other four times in the final and Evert, the ultimate baseline player, defeated Navratilova three times (in 1975, 1985 and 1986) while Martina prevailed only once, in 1984.
Later in her career, Navratilova had to face her toughest opponent in Grand Slam finals, Steffi Graf. The German, 10 years younger than her, prevailed in four of their six major final meetings and she had took the world No 1 ranking from the American on the 17th August, 1987.
Martina’s last singles Grand Slam success was in 1990, where she defeated the American, Zina Garrison, 6-4, 6-1 to claim her ninth Wimbledon trophy. In May 1994, still ranked No 4, she hadn’t left the top 10 since 1976.
Miriam Oremans, from the Netherlands, was born in 1972. She obtained her best ranking of world No 25 in 1993 after reaching her first final on the tour in Eastbourne (where she was beaten by Navratilova, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3) and the fourth round at Wimbledon (losing to Jana Novotna, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4). In 1994, she dropped in the rankings after suffering an injury before the Australian Open and, arriving at Roland-Garros, she had not won a main-draw match since early March.
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective. With the prominence of baseliners like Bjorn Borg or Evert, and the topspin era, winning Roland-Garros became the biggest challenge for those who were attacking the net.
In the 1980s, only two players managed to claim the title while consistently playing serve and volley, Yannick Noah in 1983 and Navratilova in 1982 and 1984. This explains why Navratilova had skipped such an important tournament five years in a row. In 1994, for the French Open’s first day, the novelty was the debut of a new 10,000-seat showcase stadium, Court A, which would eventually be renamed after French legend, Suzanne Lenglen, in 1997.
Although she had skipped the tournament in the last five years, and although her serve-and-volley game was not believed to be as efficient as before on clay, Navratilova was still world No 4 at the age of 37. She had just reached the final in Rome over a week ago (defeated by Conchita Martinez, 7-6, 6-4). Facing the legend, her career 167 titles and 18 Grand Slams, stood Oremans, who had never claimed a singles title on the tour, and whose best performance in a major event was reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, in 1993.
Thus, on the 23rd of May 1994, Martina Navratilova entered Court A to play her first round as the favourite. Oremans didn’t intend to give way and took her chances. As Navratilova struggled to find depth, the Dutchwoman started to run her around. This was a dangerous turn of events for Navratilova, considering their age difference: Oremans was 1 year old and taking her first steps when the legend took her own first steps on the tour in 1973. Navratilova was not her true self and she soon lost the first set, 6-4. In the second set, she had a glimmer of hope when she held two break points at 3-2 but Oremans courageously held serve. It wasn’t long before Navratilova, down 5-4, faced a match point. The Dutchwoman attacked the net and Navratilova’s backhand passing shot was long. Navratilova was defeated in the first round of a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 1976 US Open.
The defeat hurt enough that the left-handed legend smashed her racquet and threw it in the bin before leaving the court, vaguely waving to the crowd and skipping the on-court interview. Later, according to the L.A Times she said: “I have never done that before [smashing her racket]. And I hope I never will again. But at that point I was too disappointed to care about anything. I get misty eyed. I think that is why I was more affected by losing, because I know this is the last time. I will finally get to go the Louvre.
What happened next
Oremans would go as far as the third round, where she would lose to Petra Schwartz (4-6, 6-2, 6-1). Her career highlight would be a silver medal in doubles at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. She would never win a tournament on the tour in singles.
Navratilova would fare much better in her farewell appearance at Wimbledon, reaching the final, where she would be defeated by Martinez 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. This time she would share much more with the public and would receive the standing ovation she deserved.
In 2000, Navratilova would come back to the tour, playing mostly doubles, and by winning the mixed doubles at the 2003 Australian Open, partnering Leander Paes, she would indeed complete that Boxed Grand Slam and become the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time, at 46. In 2004, she played at Roland-Garros one last time, losing to Gisela Dulko of Argentina in the first round. She received a controversial wild card into Wimbledon, where at 47, she would incredibly win her first-round 6-0, 6-1 against world No 102 Catalina Castano, before losing again to Dulko, this time in three sets, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. In 2006, a few weeks from her 50th birthday, she would win the mixed doubles title at the US Open, partnering Bob Bryan, to finish her career on yet another victory.
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