Back in her day -- the roaring, soaring ’80s -- Martina Navratilova wanted to win three tournaments more than all the others: Wimbledon, the US Open and the WTA Tour Finals.
For the Americans, at least, the Australian Open and the French Open weren’t nearly as significant as they are today.
“It was the year-end thing and everybody played -- it was our event,” Navratilova said recently. “For those supporting the tour it meant a lot, in many different ways.
“The prize money was massive -- much bigger than the majors -- for many years, until the late ’80s it started catching up. And, it was one week of work instead of two. How great is that?”
No one was greater at the WTA Finals, then the Virginia Slims Championships, than Navratilova. She won eight singles titles, three more than those next in line, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf. And then there were 13 doubles championships -- maybe that’s why the year-end doubles trophy bears her name.
Where does she place those titles on a spectacular career resume that includes 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 31 more in doubles?
“High,” Navratilova said.
"At least it should be up there with the majors, same level if you totaled it up that way.”
Pam Shriver, who was Navratilova’s partner for the last 10 of those doubles titles (in an astonishing span of 11 years), goes even further.
“It’s one of the great single-event records in tennis,” she said from her home in California. “Obviously, [Rafael] Nadal’s 14 at Roland Garros are the king. But her numbers -- eight singles and 13 doubles titles at the Finals -- are right up there. It’s another one of those records that will never be broken or even approached. It’s crazy, really.”
For an athlete born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Navratilova was, for a number of reasons, a perfect fit for raucous, rollicking Madison Square Garden. After winning her first WTA Finals singles title in Oakland, California, she won the last seven in New York City.
“The surface was perfect for my game,” Navratilova said. “Playing on the carpet, the ball bounced lower than on a hard court, more like the grass at Wimbledon. I didn’t like those high bounces.”
And, she fed off the energy of the knowledgeable and excitable fans.
“The crowd,” she said, “was pretty great. If it wasn’t sold out, it was close to it. We’d have 15,000 to 20,000 people there, and they made it easy to raise your game.”
Oddly enough, the Garden’s crisp lighting enabled her attacking style.
“It was better than most indoor venues,” Navratilova said. “I could see the ball -- which for me, coming to the net, was essential.”
Shriver was also a formidable singles player, reaching the 1988 final, losing to Gabriela Sabatini.
“Yeah, but not everybody beats Evert and Graf and still doesn’t win the tournament,” Shriver said. “You just couldn’t beat the atmosphere at the Garden. The arena and the city really did elevate it to a big-time event.
Navratilova defeated seven different players in those eight winning finals, doubling up Evert in 1983 and then in 1984, the year the WTA went to a best-of-five-set championship. Navratilova prevailed in that one, 6-3, 7-5, 6-1.
The best-of-five final, in place from 1984-98, was a format that played to Navratilova’s strengths.
“That was fun,” she said. “I wish we had 3-out-of-5 in the majors because it takes a lot of stress off and puts fitness more into play.”
Another record that won’t be broken: In 1986, when the WTA Tour was in the process of shifting the year-end tournament to the fall, Navratilova won two championship finals, in March and November.
She would reach a staggering 14 singles finals, losing, in order, to Evert, Tracy Austin, Sylvia Hanika, Graf and Monica Seles, twice. In doubles, it was a vastly different story. Navratilova advanced to 13 finals -- and won them all. The first came in 1977 with Betty Stove at the age of 20. Next came two with Billie Jean King, in 1978 and 1980, before the glorious run with Shriver.
For some sobering context, consider that after Navratilova’s 13 doubles titles and Shriver’s 10, two players -- King and Lisa Raymond -- join them on the podium, with four doubles titles each.
“I loved doubles,” Navratilova said. “I was always a better doubles player than a singles player. I had great partners.”