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Monday, June 21, 2004
After warm welcome, Navratilova takes charge news services

WIMBLEDON, England -- It was just like old times for former Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova.

Nine-time champion Navratilova returned to the All England Club for her first singles match in 10 years Monday -- and looked as if she's never been away.

Serving and volleying in classic grass-court style, the 47-year-old Navratilova crushed Colombia's Catalina Castano 6-0, 6-1 in 46 minutes in a rain-interrupted early match on the opening day of the 118th edition of the Grand Slam tournament.

"It's great to be out there, great to have that opportunity," Navratilova said. "When people say, 'Why are you doing it?' I guess the answer is, because I still can, bottom line."

Navratilova is the oldest woman to win a singles match at Wimbledon since Britain's Madeline O'Neill reached the third round in 1922 at the age of 54.

Navratilova's victory was a big turnaround from her singles appearance last month at the French Open, where she lost in straight sets in the first round to Gisela Dulko of Argentina. Dulko beat Jelena Dokic 6-3, 6-3 on Monday to set up a rematch with Navratilova in the second round.

Turning to critics who thought she couldn't be competitive again, Navratilova said, "You guys didn't believe me. Now do you believe me?"

Navratilova also had pointed words for those who questioned whether she deserves to be granted wild cards at the expense of younger players.

"Are they still saying it?" she said. "I don't think so."

Granted a wild card entry last week, Navratilova was back on her favorite grass surface at the club where she made her debut 31 years ago. Winner of six straight titles from 1982-87, she hadn't played singles at Wimbledon since losing in the 1994 final to Conchita Martinez.

After receiving a warm ovation from the crowd on Court 2, known as the "graveyard of champions," Navratilova took charge immediately. She played a style rarely seen in tennis these days: She served and volleyed from the first point, she chipped and charged on the returns, she hit for angles rather than power.

Castano, ranked No. 102 and playing only her second match at the All England Club, looked tight facing a Wimbledon legend and put up little resistance until late in the match.

"It's almost like playing my mom," said Castano, who is 24 and whose mother is 50.

Navratilova was up 5-0 after just 16 minutes when the match was stopped for 40 minutes by rain. There were several other rain delays during the afternoon, with more bad weather forecast this week.

After the delay, Navratilova picked up where she left off, breaking for the first set and racing to a 5-0 lead in the second. Castano finally picked up her game, breaking for 5-1 and forcing a break point in the next game. It took Navratilova five match points before she finally closed out the contest.

"It's nice when the biggest applause is when my opponent wins one game," she said. "I just let up a little bit. It's nice to be pushed a little bit at the end. You can only play as well as your opponent."

Navratilova flashed a big smile and lifted her racket in the air as she sat on her chair, then stood up and applauded the crowd. She held up a clenched fist as she left the court.

Former two-time champion Venus Williams started her bid for a third Wimbledon title with an emphatic 6-3, 6-0 victory over Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian of Switzerland.

Hitting serves at up to 122 mph, Venus had seven aces and 26 winners. She closed the 48-minute match just before another downpour -- doing a pirouette and waving to the crowd as the grounds crew raced out to cover the court for the fourth time.

Williams dismissed the idea that Navratilova's victory over the 102nd-ranked Castano reflects poorly on the quality of play on the WTA Tour.

"It reflects well on Martina," Williams said. "She's in wonderful shape. She understands the game probably more than ever at this point."

Venus' sister, two-time defending champion Serena Williams, begins Tuesday against China's Zheng Jie. Serena, who hasn't won a Grand Slam title in a year, could become only the third woman in the past 35 years to win three consecutive Wimbledon championships.

Venus won the women's title in 2000 and 2001 but has been runner-up to her sister Serena in each of the last two finals.

French Open champion Anastasia Myskina began her Wimbledon bid with a satisfying 7-5, 6-1 victory over Slovakia's Lubomira Kurhajcova.

The slender Russian, seeded second, threw away an early advantage in the first set on Centre Court but recovered to win before an immediate break in the second set put her en route to a comfortable victory in the early evening sunshine.

Myskina, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, is in line for a potential quarterfinal meeting with compatriot Elena Dementieva, whom she beat in the French Open final earlier this month.

Dokic cut a sorry figure Monday after she was overwhelmed 6-3, 6-3 by Argentina's Dulko in the first round.

Dokic had arrived at the grass-court Grand Slam hoping to snap a two-month losing streak and set up a mouthwatering second-round showdown with Martina Navratilova.

Instead, Dulko set up a rematch with Navratilova.

Among the other women advancing Monday were No. 5 Lindsay Davenport, No. 11 Ai Sugiyama and No. 13 Maria Sharapova.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.