Evert/Navratilova:

Sport's Greatest Rivalry

 

 Every sport needs rivalries.

The great rivalries create anticipation for the fans and the players alike, raise awareness about the sport to new audiences as people hear about the titanic clashes in their local sports pages, and in the most classic of pairings, the rivals may even represent opposing forces in the universe.

Sometimes, the rivals raise the very standards of the sport, as each player works to better themselves in order to gain an edge on the rivalry and show, in short, that they are the greatest at their craft.

 

Boxing had Ali and Frazier, golf had Nicklaus and Palmer, baseball had Williams and DiMaggio, the NBA had Bird and Magic, tennis had Borg and McEnroe, but it also had the epic rivalry of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. To gain some perspective, Borg and McEnroe played 14 times, Chris and Martina, 80.

Called “The Rivalry of the Century” by sports writer Bud Collins, it stretched from 1973 to 1988, and is thought by many to be the greatest rivalry in the history of all sports.

“No two competitors have ever competed against each other as much as Chris & Martina. It will never happen again. 80 times? Which 2 boxers, which 2 baseball teams, which 2 anybody’s, are ever going to play each other 80 times over 18 years with such high quality stuff?” asks broadcast announcer and sports analyst Mary Carillo.

Their rivalry was intensified by the fact that, while their personalities were a study in contrasts, so too were their playing styles representative and magnifications of those differences. Evert, the picture of consistency and patience, impeccably placed ground strokes, and an iron will that got stronger with added pressure.

Navratilova, the emotional, volatile, relentlessly aggressive warrior woman, attacking at every opportunity, and arguing line calls while joking with fans.

“Her fans appreciated what she stood for and my fans appreciated what I stood for,” Evert said. “It was about how we looked, how we acted, our style, where we came from.”

Through the roots of these differences flourished a remarkable symbiosis, challenging each other with the improvements every season seemed to bring to their play, and thereby broadening the other’s game in the process. “As they raised each other’s game, they raised the whole sport,” says Mary Carillo.

Indeed, once Billie Jean King got the ladies’ pro tour on its feet, these two champions carried the entire burden of its future squarely on their shoulders for over 10 years. To be considered a success, a tournament needed either Evert or Navratilova – or both – in its draw.

The rivalry even had a fair dose of comradery: Evert & Navratilova won the 1975 French Open and 1976 Wimbledon doubles championships together; the master of the baseline teamed with the serve-and-volley dervish, in what surely seems in retrospect an almost unfair alliance. And as rivals go, they were really very good friends.

But it would be disrespectful to the completeness and complexity of the rivalry to smooth over the rough spots, of which there were many, and pretend it was all glorious play and good sportsmanship.

 

The rivalry had a very divisive side, most notably spearheaded by Navratilova, who chose a coach in basketball player Nancy Lieberman, later adding Renee Richards, who would teach Martina to gain the edge on Chris in the early 1980s by focusing on hating her. By her own admission, she would visualize seeing Evert as “the enemy” during her notorious physical fitness training workouts. And for at least two years in the early 80s, they were barely speaking, and when they did, it was not usually flattering.

 

 

“Chris can take a perverse pleasure in the fact that the architects that designed Martina’s game had Chris’ (game) in mind,” Mary Carillo says. “Chris had such fine ground strokes and incredible passing shots off both sides.”

While Chris had asked for distance within the competition in the late 1970s after their doubles successes together because she wanted to remain more of a mystery to Martina in their singles matches, it didn't create friction for them because it was nothing personal. However, in Martina's thirst for the number one spot, she turned the challenges of a competitive sport into a personal vendetta, based simply on the fact that Chris had dominated their early meetings, and been the force in the women’s tennis world that Navratilova had wanted to be. Evert didn’t get to the top by fueling hatred for her opponents, after all; she just challenged and bettered herself, and the results followed naturally.

Bill Russell spoke eloquently about his rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain, saying, “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.”

In what was then considered a bold move, Martina organized what came to be popularly known as "Team Navratilova" to devise the strategy and tactics, psychological and physical, to confound Evert's game. And impressively it worked for a record 13 consecutive matches between 1983 and 84. While these tactics created frictions outside of the results, Chris certainly understood the need for certain barriers within a rivalry like theirs.

“It’s very hard when you (both) want to be #1. You don’t want emotionally to get into somebody’s head when you’re competing with them and you don’t want them to get into your head, either,” Chris says.

When Navratilova became more assured of her lasting impact on tennis history, and once both Chris & Martina had to face the changing of the guard together at the hands of the young Steffi Graf, they became friendly again. With growing years, this deepened into the friendship it began as.

 

It is interesting to note certain trends in Navratilova and Evert’s head-to-head clashes. In their first 50 matches, Martina won 20. But a full 18 of the 20 wins were on grass and indoor carpet. Grass was Martina’s best surface, perfect for her style of play, and Indoor Carpet produced --by a dramatic 4 times any other surface-- Chris’ career losses. This certainly did not discourage her from playing the indoor circuit, despite the lopsided loss percentage, but at least on grass, clay, or hard court, Evert’s results show she was seeing the ball much better and was at least producing the kind of tennis she is naturally capable of.

At the end of their careers, it was the same story: Their last 8 matches, Martina won 5, all of which were either indoor or on grass. Chris won both hard court duels and the 1 clay match they played, losing only 14 games to Navratilova in all 3 matches combined. Certainly the latter part of the rivalry showed their competitive level has evened out. Between their last appearance in a Grand Slam final (1986 French) and their last meeting in a Grand Slam level event (1988 Wimbledon), they split those 10 matches, 5 apiece.

Over all, Navratilova held a 43-37 edge (a 3 match difference), but there, again, there are subtle factors in the composition of the matches, and the surfaces they were played on, that could have caused the win/loss ratio to go in other, equally closely contested, directions. Chris played Martina on Chris’ worst surface (Indoor Carpet) more than any other surface. Meanwhile, Martina only beat Chris on clay 3 times in 20 years, and that also represents a big part of the missing statistics: Navratilova skipped the whole clay-court tournament season year after year. Indeed, after two sound defeats on clay in 1975, Navratilova did not challenge Chris on European clay until her return to Paris in 1982. During this period, Navratilova also avoided the North American clay court season and did not play Evert again on American clay until her 6-0, 6-0 thumping in the final of Amelia Island in the spring of 1981. To be taken as a legityimate #1, Navratilova did play a few events in the clay season from 1982-84 but wisely stayed clear of a rejuvinated Evert throughout 1985-1986 on clay except at the French Open, where Evert won both meetings. All in all, they played each other significantly more on grass and indoors (40 times) than on clay and Har-Tru clay (13 times), largely because Chris honored her responsibilities to play --as a major draw for womens tennis-- during every phase of the tennis season, irregardless of how the surface might benefit her or not. That said, it is impressive to note that outside of Martina's 5-0 dominance in Wimbledon finals, Evert kept steady with Navratilova on grass (5-5) outside of Wimbledon finals..

An additional subtlety to the results of the rivalry is that, if Martina had been more consistent between 1975 and 1981, she would have likely been the victim of many more matches that Chris was inevitably playing and winning against other opponents who made the final round of competiton, instead of Navratilova. Whereas during Navratilova's equally long dominance, Evert was the more consistent performer, always remaining a firm number 2, inevitably competing in the final stages of any tournament she entered. So while much of history's perception of Navratilova's dominance comes from the dramatic impact of her 13-match winning streak against Chris between1983-1984, those two years were unrepresentative yet severly effected both statistics and perceptions. After all, Evert lost 10 matches to Navratilova in 1982-83 playing with a wood racquet, while Martina competed with graphite!! A small disadvantage to say the least. But that's not the part that is preserved in public memory.

In the end, these two players were probably more closely matched against each other and above the rest of the field for as long a period of time as any two competitors could be, and all 16 years considered, possibly dead even. The “Who Was Better” debate will go back and forth with as many twists and turns as the competitor’s dizzying points were played. And ultimately, the answer still relates more to whatever the viewer thinks matters in a tennis player, how the game should be played, and what you find beauty and truth in. As the story says, they represented polar opposite extremes.

“But I think in the end,” Evert reflected, “we both realized that we pushed each other and made the other one a much better player.” More emphatically, says Martina, "There never will be another Chris and Martina show. There never was another like it and there never will be another."

They finished their careers tied with 18 Grand Slam singles titles each.

They also finished their careers as friends. Evert even met her husband of 18 years, Andy Mill, while visiting Martina’s home in Aspen Colorado for a New Year’s party.

They were inextricably entwined throughout their playing careers, so it was somehow fitting that when the two players retired, they both chose to settle in Aspen. As Evert joked at the time, “We just can’t seem to shake each other.”

 

READ MORE on the rivalry HERE in this exclusive interview with ChrisEvert.Net & author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova," Johnette Howard.

 

The greatest rivalry in the history of sport

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, enjoying Wimbledon from their seats in the audience, 1999.

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Clips from the ESPN 30 for 30 Documentary UNMATCHED

 

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