November 14, 1994: The day Martina Navratilova retired from the tour

Each day, Tennis Majors takes you back to an important moment in tennis history. On this day in 1994, Martina Navratilova played her final match on the WTA Tour before making a doubles comeback in 2000

Martina Navratilova OTD 11_14

What exactly happened on that day? 

On this day, November 14 in 1994, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, aged 38, played her final match on the tour, defeated by Gabriela Sabatini in the first round of the WTA Tour Championships (6-4, 6-2). The former world No 1, who at the time held the record of the longest reign at No 1 with 332 weeks spent atop the WTA rankings, was still ranked No 5 in the world, and had not finished a season outside the top 5 since 1975, her first year as a professional player.

The players involved: Martina Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini

  • Martina Navratilova: the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who ever lived

Martina Navratilova, born in 1956 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 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 titles than Navratilova (167), doubles events (177), or matches (2,189). Left-handed, Navratilova played serve-and-volley unlike any woman before her. According to her rival Chris Evert, Navratilova took fitness to a whole 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. The Czech-born player had won a total of 18 Grand Slam titles in singles, including a record of nine Wimbledon crowns, six of them having been conquered successively between 1982 and 1987.

By 1994, she had also won 31 Grand Slam titles 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 Slams 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 during that time, the Australian Open was played in December), and had secured the world No 1 spot for 332 weeks, a record at the time.  She had already announced that 1994 was going to be her final year on the tour, and, aged 37, she became the oldest player to reach the Wimbledon singles final (lost to Conchita Martinez, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3). At the end of the season, she was still ranked No 5 in the world, and the year-end WTA Tour Championships, a tournament in which she has already appeared no less than 20 times. was going to be her swansong.

  • Gabriela Sabatini: The Argentine who won the US Open in 1990

Gabriela Sabatini, from Argentina, was born in 1970. Successful at a very young age, in 1985, she became the youngest player to reach the semi-final at Roland-Garros, where she was defeated by Chris Evert (6-4, 6-1). In the following years, Sabatini, displaying a beautiful one-handed backhand, established herself in the top 10, reaching the semi-final at Wimbledon in 1986 (lost to Martina Navratilova), and two more times at the French Open in 1987 and 1988, each time defeated by Steffi Graf. In 1988, in Boca Raton, she was the first of only two players to beat Graf (2-6, 6-3, 6-1) that year, and at the US Open,  she finished runner-up to her German rival (6-3, 3-6, 6-1). 

Sabatini climbed as high as world No 3 in 1989. That year, she lost to Graf in the semi-finals at both the Australian and the US Open, but in 1990 she eventually beat the German (6-2, 7-6) to claim her first and only Grand Slam title at the US Open. In 1991, at Wimbledon, she played a last major final (lost to none other than Graf, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6). Post that, the Argentine remained a solid top 10 player, reaching the semi-finals in Grand Slam tournaments no less than seven times, the last of which came at the 1994 US Open (lost to Arantxa Sanchez, 6-1, 7-6).

The place: Madison Square Garden, New York

The women’s season-ending event, known as the Virginia Slims Championships, was originally founded in 1972. Its first edition was held in Boca Raton, Florida, and the tournament moved to Los Angeles and Oakland before eventually settling down in New York in 1979. The venue of the event was the famous Madison Square Garden, where 18,000 spectators could be hosted. In 1994, the top 16 players in the world qualified for the Championships, and, unlike in present times, there was no round-robin format. Since 1984, it was the only tournament on the women’s tour where the final was played under a best-to-five sets format. Navratilova, who had triumphed eight times, held the record of the most titles won at the Championships.

The facts: Martina Navratilova does not know whether to laugh or cry at ceremony post-match

Seeing Martina Navratilova competing at the 1994 year-end WTA Tour Championships was anything but unusual for the New York crowd. The former world No 1 had reached the final of the tournament no less than 14 times, including 10 in a row, winning a record eight titles in singles. However, even if she was still world No 5, she hadn’t triumphed at Madison Square Garden in eight years, the last coming in 1986 over Steffi Graf (7-6, 6-3, 6-2). What made this particular appearance special was that Navratilova, who now competed under the American flag, had already announced that 1994 was going to be her final year on the tour, which meant that she was competing there for the last time.

In the first round, she faced Sabatini, ranked No 9 in the world that time. The two players knew each other’s games quite well, as they had already faced each other 20 times, with Navratilova leading their head-to-head 15-5. There was no real favourite in this match as Navratilova had proven that she was still competitive at the highest level by reaching the Wimbledon final in July, while Sabatini had reached the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows a couple of months earlier.

Yet, from the first few games, the Argentine took a hold on the match, firing 37 winners and mixing sharp passing shots with delightful lobs to neutralize Navratilova’s serve-and-volley game. The nine-time Wimbledon champion seemed powerless, despite the cheering of the New York crowd and the support of her mother. Sabatini won the first set, 6-4.

“This is career point”, said the TV broadcaster, when the Argentine obtained a match point at 5-2 in the second set. After a good first serve, she hit an aggressive forehand which she followed to the net, but she didn’t have to volley: Navratilova’s career ended on a missed backhand passing shot. 

Soon after the match, a ceremony was held to celebrate Navratilova’s career. A six-minute tribute film was shown on the giant screen, and a commemorative banner was raised to the Madison Square Garden’s rafters, an honour usually reserved to hockey or basketball players. Navratilova’s long-time sponsor, Virginia Slims, gave her a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as a farewell present.

“I don’t know whether I should cry or laugh,” said Navratilova, according to The Los Angeles Times. “I got blown off the court, but if I had to lose my last match, I’d probably rather lose it to Gabriela Sabatini than anyone else because she’s a good human being.”

“On the one side, I didn’t want to be the one to beat her, on the other side it was a great honour to beat her,” the Argentine said in response. “I got to know Martina off the court. I have to say that she is a great person.”

What next? Sabatini retires in 1996 but Navratilova comes back for doubles

In 2000, Navratilova would come back to the tour, restricting herself to doubles. By partnering Leander Paes to win the mixed doubles at the 2003 Australian Open, 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, she would win her first round 6-0, 6-2 against world No 102 Catalina Castano, before losing to 59th ranked Gisela Dulko (3-6, 6-3, 6-3). In 2006, a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, Navratilova would claim the mixed doubles title at the US Open, partnering Bob Bryan, and finish her career on a high. 

Gabriela Sabatini would go on to win the 1994 WTA Tour Championships defeating Lindsay Davenport in the final (6-3, 6-2, 6-4). In 1995, she would claim her final singles title in Sydney (where she beat Davenport again, 6-3, 6-4), and she would obtain her last remarkable result at the US Open, where she lost to Steffi Graf in the semi-final (6-4, 7-6). In 1996, struggling with motivation, Sabatini would enter only 10 tournaments and would retire at the end of the season.

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