FOR THOSE WHO KNEW MARTINA NAVRATILOVA best, it was a moment of surpassing emotion. Last July 7, under an unusually sunny English sky, Navratilova defeated Zina Garrison 6-4, 6-1 at Centre Court, winning her record-breaking ninth Wimbledon singles championship, more than any man or other woman in history. As Garrison mishit her final backhand, Navratilova raised her arms, sank to sore knees and scanned the crowd for longtime companion Judy Nelson, the honey-blond former Texas beauty queen who six years before had left a husband and two children to live with her. As their eyes met, both women burst into tears.

What a difference a year makes. This week, as Navratilova, 34, makes another run at Wimbledon history, Nelson, 45, will be conspicuously absent. In April, she received a perfunctory letter from Navratilova, officially ending their seven-year relationship. A month ago, Nelson filed suit in a Texas court, asking for 50 percent of all money and property Navratilova has acquired since 1984. After failed negotiations with Navratilova, Nelson produced a 15-page "nonmarital cohabitation agreement" that she and Navratilova signed in 1986—which her lawyer says may entitle her to between $5 million and $10 million. "For seven years I have supported and assisted Martina, sacrificing many of my own personal goals in the process," Nelson said. "She has left me and pursued another relationship. She is now refusing to abide by the very terms of the partnership agreement and left my life in disarray."

Navratilova learned of the lawsuit just before she left for England; after a practice session, she was served a notice of suit. (Innocently, the server asked for Navratilova's autograph before handing her the papers. A furious Navratilova asked for the autograph back.) In her view, Nelson's "terribly malicious" timing was hardly an accident. Ignoring charges that she violated any contractual obligations to Nelson, Navratilova says, "...I not only took care of Judy, but of course her family, provided help with her parents and her kids—her two sons and their friends—flying people all over the place....That wasn't enough, I guess."

It is an ugly end to what, by all accounts, has been the happiest of alternative marriages. According to Nelson, things began to come unstrung last January, at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. "I was upset about some things that had transpired, and I told [Martina] if these things were true that we needed to be separated," says Nelson. "She more or less just said, 'Okay, then, goodbye.' When we got home, she left. Later she called me and said, 'We're through.' I was devastated.... I've called her and asked her to talk, but she always put me off. These are emotional issues, and Martina doesn't like to deal with emotional things. The most emotion you'll ever see from her is on the court." Did Martina leave her for somebody else? Nelson snaps bitterly, "What do you think?" she says. "Martina doesn't like to be alone."

The split had been rumored among the couple's friends. Martina had been spending more time away from Judy, seeing new friends in Colorado, among them former U.S. ski team star Cindy Nelson, 35, now director of skiing at Vail and Beaver Creek. (Through a spokeswoman, Cindy Nelson denied that she has anything other than a friendship with Navratilova.) "I did not leave Judy Nelson for a younger woman or anyone else," says Martina. "We simply parted."

Navratilova first met Judy Hill Nelson in 1982 at a tournament in Fort Worth, where Hill's son Edward, then 11, was a ball boy. "It was just one of those things where you know instantly you're going to be friends," recalls Nelson. Navratilova had previously lived with lesbian author Rita Mae Brown. In 1984 she ran into Nelson again, at a Virginia Slims tournament in Dallas. Local papers soon reported that Nelson and her husband, Edward, a prominent internist, had become friendly with the tennis star. In June, she invited the Nelsons to Wimbledon. Edward declined; Judy never came home.

When Navratilova and Nelson returned to Fort Worth, it was as a couple. Together, they moved into a costly town house. Even Nelson's lawyer, Jerry Loftin, says the relationship was "the subject of much notoriety" in conservative Fort Worth. Nelson's husband gained custody of their two sons in a nondisputed agreement, but Navratilova sometimes pitched in to drive car pools for the boys. A few years later she gave Judy's son Eddie a Porsche 944, which she had won in a tournament.

Soon after the relationship began, Nelson and her family joined the ranks of coaches and friends who made up Navratilova's travel entourage. Judy's brother, Sarge, now 47, signed on as director of the Martina Youth Foundation. Nelson's mother helped Judy with designs for Navratilova's new clothing line, MN. Nelson was perceived by some of Martina's friends as flaunting her partner's largess. "The jewels Judy has," says one person familiar with the circuit, "the earrings, the bracelets, the diamonds, the rubies! And those were just the casual jewels she wore on the circuit." Judy says that on occasion, the couple gave each other jewelry.

According to Nelson, both she and Navratilova wanted the now-disputed partnership agreement to express "our relationship as equals. Just as we shared views on the environment and animal rights, it was one more issue we agreed on. Maybe I was out designing clothes and she was out practicing tennis, but we wanted it clear that we were equal partners."

Navratilova now claims naïveté about the agreement. "It seemed a lot more complicated than what I had drawn up myself, and it said quite different things." Snorts Judy, "Martina is much more sophisticated in contractual matters than I." To buttress Navratilova's assertion that the partnership was less than official, her lawyer produced undated, handwritten notes she made, apparently before the signing. In part, they read: "Judy gets the Rolls-Royce...her horse (Cat's Ghost or the black stallion she's looking for now), $3000 for every year we live together starting in March 1984." So why did Navratilova sign the agreement? Navratilova says, "I just trusted everybody because here I was with Judy and her lawyer [in fact, a friend who was a paralegal]....I cannot believe she is doing it for money."

Others can, since Nelson willingly led the life of a globe-trotting tennis spouse. About nine months a year, she accompanied Navratilova on the circuit; the rest of the time was divided between a Trump Plaza apartment in New York City and houses in Fort Worth and Aspen, where they moved a few years ago. Last year the couple began construction of a 7,000-sq. ft. house set atop 100 acres Navratilova purchased at Castle Creek, near Aspen. The dramatic two-bedroom stucco and glass house—which includes an indoor lap pool and a barn for seven horses—was a joint project. "We both designed it," says Nelson. "I was the one who suggested we buy the land."

By all accounts, Navratilova and Nelson shunned the Aspen party scene in favor of hiking, horseback riding, mushrooming, skiing at Ajax Mountain and working out at the Aspen Club, which is co-owned by Navratilova's friend, former touring tennis pro Julie Anthony. Although Navratilova is a member of the exclusive Caribou Club—along with race car driver Danny Sullivan, Michael and Diandra Douglas, and Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith—she and Nelson rarely went there. Martina made it a point, though, to appear at community benefits, a practice Judy says she encouraged to improve Navratilova's image. "Martina is a major player for every local charity," says Harley Baldwin, owner of the club. "She's always there when you need her."

To Nelson's apparent surprise, however, Navratilova wasn't there after the breakup. "One day I went to order flowers for a friend of ours who had just had a baby," she says, recounting what she regards as a particularly galling indignity. "Martina was out of town, and I was told I no longer had credit there. I couldn't go to the club to work out. I couldn't go out to eat at restaurants, nothing. IMG [International Management Group, Navratilova's agent] paid for the utilities at the house and that's about all." Judy says her sons have been hurt by the split as well, adding that Navratilova has not bothered to contact them.

Unless Nelson and Navratilova can resolve their differences, a Texas court will hear the case sometime after Sept. 10. In the meantime, Navratilova is trying to concentrate on a 10th Wimbledon singles title. "A year ago I didn't know if I would get the record at Wimbledon because my body was so sore," she told reporters. "But at least I thought I knew where I was going to live and who I was going to live with once my career did end. Now I don't know anything, except that all I can do is play the best tennis I can."

SUSAN REED
ANNE MAIER in Fort Worth and VICKIE BANE in Aspen

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier,
  • Vickie Bane.