February 11, 1994: The day Martina Navratilova played in Chicago for the last time

Every day. Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On February 11, 1994, Martina Navratilova played in Chicago, a tournament she had won 12 times already, as part of her farewell tour

Martina Navratilova, On this day Martina Navratilova, On this day

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, February 11, 1994, at her last appearance at the Chicago Open, a tournament she had won 12 times in her career, Martina Navratilova was defeated 6-4, 6-3 in the quarter-finals by Bulgaria’s Magdalena Maleeva. 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.

The players: Martina Navratilova and Magdalena Maleeva

  • Martina Navratilova: 18-times Grand Slam singles champion and G.O.A.T
Martina Navratilova, US Open, 2006

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 had won more singles tournaments (167), doubles events (177), or matches (2,189) than Navratilova. Left-handed, she played serve-and-volley tennis like few did before her. According to her rival Chris Evert, she took fitness to a new level in women’s tennis, introducing the idea of cross-training and playing other sports such as basketball in order to improve her physical conditioning.

Navratilova claimed a total of 18 Grand Slam titles in singles, with a record of nine Wimbledon crowns, six of them having been won consecutively between 1982 and 1987. By 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 Majors 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 ranked No 3 in the world.

  • Magdalena Maleeva, the youngest of three Maleeva sisters from Bulgaria

Magdalena Maleeva, born in1975, was the youngest of the incredible Maleeva family from Bulagria with her two sisters also being top 10 ranked professional players: Manuela (highest ranking: No 3 in the world), and Katerina (highest ranking: No 6). Magdalena’s 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 ranked No 13 in the world.

The place: Chicago’s UIC Pavilion

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 won the title 12 times.

The facts: Maleeva beats Navratilova in straight sets

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: she had won it 12 times, more than any other player. She might have been close to retirement, but 37-year Navratilova was still ranked No 3 in the world and she wanted to go out in style.

Navratilova had skipped the Australian Open, but in her first tournament of the season, in Tokyo, she reached the final, where she was only defeated by the 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 quarter-finals in Chicago, she faced the youngest of the Maleeva sisters, Magdalena, who was still only 18 years old. The Bulgarian had defeated the former world No 1 at the 1992 US Open (6-4 0-6 6-3), but Navratilova had prevailed over her in all their other four 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.

What next? One more Wimbledon final and a doubles comeback for Navratilova

The highlight of Navratilova’s farewell tour would come a few months later at Wimbledon, where she would reach the final and go down to Conchita Martinez in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. This time she would share much more with the public and would receive the standing ovation she deserved after nine titles claimed at the All England Club.

In 2000, Navratilova would return to 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 the age of 46.

In 2004, she would receive a controversial wild card into the Wimbledon singles draw. Now 47, Navratilova would incredibly win her first round 6-0, 6-2 against world No 102 Catalina Castano, before losing to Gisela Dulko, ranked No 59 in the world, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. In 2006, a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, she would claim the mixed doubles title at the US Open, partnering Bob Bryan, and finish her career on a triumphant note.

Magdalena Maleeva would climb as high as world No 4 in January 1996, after winning three titles in 1995, her best season on the tour. She would play her final WTA tournament in 2005. After her career, she continued to remain involved in tennis and also worked to create public awareness about environmental issues.

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