Evert-Navratilova, the rivalry that shaped women's tennis

Their 80 clashes between 1973 and 1988 changed the image of female athletes and paved the way for future stars.

Author: Alessandro Mastroluca | 2017-12-07 18:30 | 5476 reads

“There never will be another Chris and Martina show”. Martina Navratilova summed up the spirit of “The Rivalry of the Century” as Bud Collins labelled the era that stretched from 1973 to 1988, highlighted by her 80 clashes against her friend Chris Evert.

They were a study in contrast. Evert was the picture of consistency, Naratilova an emotional, graceful warrior. Their fiercely competitive nature drew both to learn from the rival. Evert started to improve fitness and attacking game during the eighties, Navratilova became hungrier and fitter when she began to work with Nancy Lieberman spurred by a dramatically 6-0 6-0 defeat to Evert in Amelia Island. “As they raised each other’s game, they raised the whole sport,” observed Mary Carillo. “In the end,” Evert reflected, “we both realized that we pushed each other and made the other one a much better player”.

Evert was the first tennis prodigy before prodigies became the norm. Her arrival, her successes “exploded a lot of the negative stereotypes about women athletes, and she assuaged a lot of parents' fears about whether it was acceptable for girls to play sports” wrote Johnette Howard for The Guardian in 2005. The new feminist dream of the career woman who could have it all found the most powerful and persuasive icon ever.

"I know I'm no angel. I'm not as goody-two-shoes as people think," Evert told Sports Illustrated. "I'm a normal woman. I've dated a lot of guys, I've had a few drinks. I've told dirty jokes, I've cursed, I've been rude to my parents. There's nothing in my life, no skeletons in my closet that people should be so shocked about. But I've lived a normal life".

Navratilova offered an outspoken, revolutionary example. "How gratifying it must have been for her," Frank Deford wrote. "To have achieved so much, triumphed so magnificently, yet always to have been the other, the odd one, alone: lefthander in a righthanded universe, gay in a straight world; defector, immigrant (...). When she came into the game, she was the European among Americans; she leaves as the American among Europeans”. She embraced the freedom to be herself, totally herself, even when circumstances would have suggested a different approach. “I want freedom” she said, announcing her defection to the United States. She embraced a role of athlete-activist, and dared to be openly gay when she knew that women's professional tennis would have lost sponsors, as it happened after she came out.

"Martina was a revelation to a lot of people who didn't watch women's tennis because they thought it was slow and boring. She was an athlete through and through" said Grace Lichtenstein author of the fundamental book A Long Way, Baby.

“Her influence went far beyond numbers," Robert Lipsyte and Peter Levine wrote in Idols of the Game. "As a lesbian, Navratilova expanded the dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality in sports”. Chris Evert was one of the first to openly support her decision. She had been one of the first, also, to realize it when Martina was still figuring herself out. In a documentary on their rivalry, Evert recalled when Dino Martin, the handsome and fascinating son of Dean, asked her if he could get a date with Martina. They went on a double-date and apparently nothing happened. After a chaste date with Dino, Evert sardonically commented, Martina could have figured it out.

Navratilova returned the favour in 1986. Evert had just divorced from John Lloyd, and she invited her to spend the Christmas holidays in Aspen. Then she happened to introduce Chrissie to the skier Andy Mill, who escorted Evert down a steep trail in Colorado. Navratilova lent them her Aspen bedroom. Evert would have married Mill for 18 good years.

“Before I even met her, she stood for everything I admired in this country: poise, ability, sportsmanship, money, style,” Navratilova said in her autobiography, Martina. She admired Evert's mother, Colette. “From the first time I appeared on the tour, I got the feeling she honestly felt bad when I lost and happy when I won” she wrote.

Martina showed a lot of respect for Evert's father, Jimmy, who died in August 2015. “"When people look up the definition of a Tennis Dad, a photo of Jimmy Evert should be next to it - an amazing, gentle man, husband, father and coach... nothing but respect for him at every level" she said. Jimmy had been the city of Fort Lauderdale's tennis director for almost half a century. He worked with 1963 US Championships finalist Frank Froehling, the World No.1 Jennifer Capriati and two highly-ranked players as Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon.

He teached her daughter the basis of tennis on clay, he guided her to use her terrific double-handed backhand and gave her one of the best pieces of advice ever. "I remember my dad telling me” she recalled, “don't let your opponent know how you're feeling, even if you're frustrated or upset, don't let them know because that will frustrate them. Sure enough, I kept it in from then on. I would look across the net and I would see drama happening and emotions and breaking racquets and cursing, and I would just be really steady and consistent and calm. I think it drove my opponents nuts. I think that was a good way to be”.

Also Navratilova grew in a tennis family: her maternal grandmother, Agnes Semanska, had been a world-class player and beatVera Sukova (the 1962 Wimbledon runner-up and mother of future WTA player Helena). An avid student of the game, at age nine she worked with a former Czech star, George Parma. "I liked being hitting volleys and not being on the baseline," she said. "I wanted to make things happen, to create."

In 1973, at the age of 16, Navratilova began to play pro events. A tournament in Akron, Ohio in March marked her first match versus Evert, who won 7-6 6-3. History of women's tennis would never be the same.

Evert won 20 of their first 24 matches, Martina obtained 18 of her first 20 victories on grass and indoor carpet, her best surfaces. Their rivalry ended with Navratilova holding a 43-37 edge (a 3 match difference), but Chris played Martina on her worst surface (Indoor Carpet) more than any other while Navratilova only beat Evert on clay 3 times in 16 years. To Martina’s credit, her 10-4 record versus Evert in Grand Slam finals testified her ability to rise to the higher level on the biggest matches.

"There was nothing like Martina," said Julie Heldman. "She played pretty, sort of like Laver. Everything worked, there was such obvious talent. Her backhand was weak then but she could slice it and get to the net. Her forehand was darn good. Her serve even at that young age was exceptional."

During the first years, Evert said, “we didn't travel with anybody. We didn't even travel with a coach. We practiced together before we played each other in the finals. Then we had lunch together before the finals. Then we played the finals. And then we took a flight that night to the next tournament together”.

In 1980, Navratilova completed the season behind Evert and Austin. Then she launched a revolution. In the spring of 1981, after being double-bagelled at Amelia Island, Navratilova met the basketball star Nancy Lieberman. With her, Navratilova rapidly started weight training and changed her diet: she became the first to apply the comprehensive cross-training regimen so common nowadays. Navratilova gained a new mental fortitude as a consequence of her stamina. "When you're fit, you don't feel the need to bail out of points early," said Navratilova. "You know you can last, and over long matches, long points and day after day of competition that means a lot. Most of all it meant I didn't have to conserve myself. It meant being able to play the point the right way."

The final missing piece came through Renee Richards, who channelled her raw talent adding knowledge and tactical brilliance to improve her topspin backhand and forehand volley. At the 1981 Us Open semifinal, during the first experiment of what would be known as the Super Saturday, in her first meeting with Evert after Amelia Island, Naratilova came back from 2-4 in the third. "The difference between Amelia Island and the US Open was amazing. She'd become fitter, leaner, quicker, hungrier”.

Evert knew she needed to adapt her game. She lost 10 matches between 1982 and 1983 in the middle of a 13-match losing streak. "Finally, the 14th time I walked out and I kind of bluffed myself into believing I could beat her. If you don't feel, really deep down, that you're going to beat somebody, you better bluff it and think you're going to do it. If you walk out in the negative thinking you're going to lose, you're going to lose. If you think that maybe you have a chance and you bluff yourself, at least you've got a chance" she said, as Joel Drucker reported in a detailed profile for the WTA website. "Champions are stubborn and it's not always good. You stay with a winning game, you change a losing game."

And Evert changed her losing strategies. “I had to get physically stronger, to work on my legs to get more spring and power, to make my upper body stronger to get more pace on my serve and groundstrokes" she said. Her coach Dennis Ralston urged Evert to be more aggressive, to keep Martina back, to make her feel bad about missing a passing shot.

Navratilova won 39 of their last 56 matches, but the quality of Evert's play rose impressively. In the 1985 French Open final, she collected a sparkling 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 win over Navratilova who had outclassed her losing four games the year before. Navratilova put her arm around her friend as Evert had done around Martina when she had won her first Wimbledon. “Those two times, you wouldn’t have known who won the match, and they were huge in our careers” Navratilova said to Parade.

Moving through camaraderie and divisive sides, Evert and Navratilova shared a season of changes. They both determined a cultural and sports revolution that shaped women's tennis and paved the way for future stars. They've come a long way, drawing a perfect rivalry, so perfect that could be considered something totally different. Like Bill Russell, who won 11 titles in 13 years and became the first black coach in the NBA history, said about Wilt Chamberlain, the former Globetrotter who scored 100 points in a single match, “we didn’t have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. We just loved playing against each other. The fierceness of the competition bonded us as friends for eternity. We loved competition”.


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