Legends show that victory is both physical and cerebral

Legends show that victory is both physical and cerebral
Martina Navratilova and Marion Bartoli chat during their match against Iva Majoli and Tracy Austin in the Legends match before the opening of the WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Marcel Proust, the French writer whose felicity with the forehands cannot quite be confirmed, once reportedly wrote: "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were."

Retired heroes, in sport especially, always wore haloes in our memories, stories told of their glory, less of their sins.

But in a modern world, it has changed, for there is barely remembrance at all. Even in sport. In a world of quickly erasing memory where a tweet 10 minutes ago is old news, history seems like bunk.

"Move on" is current code for "forget it", but sport particularly never should. Only the footprints of history can tell us the size of tennis shoes the present must fill. And so it's kind of sweet that even as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova do their grunting dance into the record books, the WTA Finals have let even the retired Legends have their little sideshow.

Just so a parent can tell a child, see that erect woman of 58, with the volley that still sings off the strings, she could play a bit. Name's Martina Navratilova. Owns 59 grand slam titles (singles, doubles, mixed), has eight WTA Finals wins, a woman rarely short of a shot or an opinion.

At 36, Navratilova got to the finals of these Finals in 1992 and she knows about Serena and ageing bodies. "There's the mental bit," she says. "No matter what, you must be getting tired because there's a lot of stress."

The older body is also a disobedient instrument.

"It takes longer to recover. You can't train as hard. (And) the bad days are worse."

But she'll also add that Serena, in comparison, has played fewer matches. "At her age, I'd probably played 500 more matches. Just singles, never mind doubles. Which is a big plus for her, mentally and physically."

Maybe in Navratilova's mind, greatness is a clutter, with so many victories to sift through to find one in particular.

For Marion Bartoli, 30 and retired, it's simpler: Wimbledon last year was unforgettable. And so when I ask where she keeps her trophy, a smile breaks out: "In my heart."

Bartoli, who played tennis to her own quirky music, will remember Wimbledon for 2013 but also for 2011 when she overcame Serena there. It allows her to produce an eloquent description of the experience of playing the younger Williams.

"You have to bring your 100 per cent from the first point. Any lapse of concentration and she will step on you. The pressure she's putting with her speed and power... I never face something like this, I never feel something like this."

And that serve? "She will toss the ball from the same place and hit all the spots."

Yet Bartoli, 30, beats Williams in 2011, partly because of two things. First, she enters the zone, this place of perfection where the ball does what you wish and sport offers the illusion of being easy.

"Maybe you go there for five matches a year," she says. The rest of the time you're struggling against yourself. Second, Bartoli was on court No. 1. Where she had never lost.

This lucky court is revealing of the tiny omens athletes grasp onto in a universe where so little lies within their control. Everything little matters here. Even body language.

Tracy Austin, 51, US Open champion of 1979 and 1981, speaks of tennis as partially a performance art. About acting confident even if you're not feeling confident.

"If you don't feel it, fake it," she insists.

"If you send hope to your opponent, it's going to be a lot more difficult for you."

Confidence creates aura, which is described as an air but is in fact an invisible armour. It is the great player wrapped in a reputation and you have to defeat both.

Austin sees this aura in Serena and Sharapova and says: "I would think, you walk on the court and you feel like, wow, this is going to be really difficult to get across the finish line."

Sport in any other time but the raucous present seems sedate, yet for Austin her era was tinged with its own colour.

"It was pretty glam and glitzy," she says.

With no disrespect to Singapore's Indoor Stadium, it's not quite Madison Square Garden, where Ali and Frazier tussled in the Fight of the Century, Elvis once strutted in a gold cape and Austin won the WTA Finals in 1980.

Yesterday she, Navratilova, Bartoli and Iva Majoli exchanged shots from their memory on court.

It was worth a picture and maybe future generations will discover it one day on the Internet, next to the one of Proust strumming a tennis racket in 1891.

Athletes get old but tennis rarely does for them. Perhaps only the type of pleasure it brings alters in time.

As Bartoli said of tennis now for her: "I love it. It's like being an innocent child with a racket." Just pure love for a game. Something, perhaps, that's always worth remembering.


This article was first published on October 21, 2014.
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