On June 7, 2005, a new book on the most compelling rivalry in tennis history—and many believe, in all of sport—hit bookstore shelves across the country. “The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova – Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship”was written and researched by veteran sports journalist Johnette Howard, currently a columnist at New York Newsday and formerly a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Howard’s work was nominated for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in general commentary, and was chosen for selection in Best American Sports Writing of the 20th Century.
In this exclusive interview with ChrisEvert.Net, we caught up with the author a few months prior to the book release. Johnette Howard gives us a birds-eye view into the ideas that shaped the writing of the book, the inside scoop on off-the-court trials, and much insight into why, after all these years, those that lived through the era of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova can count themselves privileged for having witnessed perhaps the greatest rivalry of all time.
Q-1. The perfection of the Evert/Navratilova rivalry was such that their 80 meetings were split almost right down the center. In 16 years of competition, they met exactly 40 times in the first eight years (1973-1980) with Chris gaining a 27-13 head-to-head advantage. They met another 40 times the second eight years (1981-1988) with Martina scoring a 30-10 record. Martina ended up leading the rivalry 43-37 overall.
How did both champions differ in handling the pressure of when they were not fulfilling their goal to be the world No. 1, and the pressure that arrived once their destiny was achieved?
JH: I think many of the most interesting passages in the book deal with these backstage moments that your question refers to. Though people think they know Chris and Martina from the sports page result stories and headlines, we’ve never heard the full story of their careers told from the inside, from Evert and Navratilova themselves, and from the people closest to them. This book does that.
I think the book shows how, even in the best of times, chasing greatness extracts an enormous toll. It takes a terrific — almost monomaniacal — amount of work and ambition and intelligence and perseverance to be the best in the world at something.
Chris talks about never feeling that she was special as a young player. But what kept her going was her realization that although some other players seemed more athletic or talented (even to her), “I noticed that I did keep winning.”
From a very young age, Chris landed on a way to win and an exacting routine that made her a champion. But she soon came to believe that her drive ruled her emotions too much. She tells some very affecting stories about the gulf between this public image of perfection that she had – or was given – and the depression she privately fought after some major losses. She also describes the toll that tennis took on her personal relationships; how she struggled to navigate fame at such a young age, and how much of her adult life was devoted to deciding what she believed in and who she wanted to be as a human being. As she says at one point in the book: “I was given a personality before I got a chance to develop one on my own.”
Martina was the exact opposite. Whereas Chris really was machine-like in her consistency, Martina had to learn how to think the game, and discipline herself to take advantage of her enormous athletic skills. Once she did, she became nearly invincible. But Martina always fancied herself capable of beating everyone long before she had the portfolio to match her self-belief.
For a long time, she had to endure criticism that she wasn’t living up to her immense talent. Quite often she agreed that that was true.
Martina had to deal with intense loneliness after her defection from Czechoslovakia. She was prone at various times to choking away matches because she wanted to win so badly. In the end, her career became as much about conquering herself as it was about conquering Chris.
Q-2. What was the most surprising insight you came away with from exploring this classic rivalry that you had no idea about before beginning the book?
JH: I think I was most struck by how the pat portrayals of Chris and Martina over the years were often misguided or too simplistic. And I was struck by the fascinating personal migrations that each woman made along the way.
Chris was always depicted as the straight-laced Ice Maiden, America’s Sweetheart. Martina was often derided as the hard-edged brute, the Communist Czech defector, the gay outsider. Chris says she used to constantly tell people, “I’m the tough one. Martina’s a kitten” – but few people believed her.
Chris says to this day people will meet her and tell her, “I had no idea you had a sense of humor!” She was famous from the age of 16, and it was as if fans came to feel as if they knew her because they had watched her grow up. But that idyllic image that was given to her didn’t allow for her maturation into a woman, and it didn’t much allow her to be human. She admits for years early in her career she struggled with the idea of “What is Chris Evert supposed to do?” before acting or saying something publicly. Over time, what she finally decided was it was up to her to define her life on the terms that she wanted to live. She was also adamant about handling celebrity in her own way. She said, “I didn’t want everyone to know everything about me.”
Q-3. To a large degree, the tennis of these two greats was an expression of their personalities, presenting an on-court version of their emotional instincts. But while they evolved in their games and in who they were, there was still a primary tactical formula in match strategy between them. What would you say is the match or series of matches where essential shifts were made by one or the other player to gain a new advantage or upper-hand? And how was that upper hand neutralized with future strategy or developments in their game?
JH: Martina has said that her first Wimbledon victory, which came against Chris in 1978, was the most important of her career, because it proved to her that she could beat the best player in the world on the sport’s biggest stage.
Chris felt that she dominated the early years of their rivalry because she was tougher minded and her game was more consistent than Martina’s. She also believed she was better than Martina at handling the pressure moments in a match. “I knew I could out-steady her,” Chris has said.
What changed the dynamic of the rivalry for Martina was 1.) when Nancy Lieberman became her personal trainer, and 2.) when her coaches, Renee Richards, then Mike Estep, made tactical changes in her game. A lot of attention has been paid – deservedly so – to how Lieberman whipped Martina into peak physical shape for the first time in Martina’s career. But the enormous psychological makeover that she led Martina through as a competitor was equally important. Lieberman admitted she admired Chris’s approach more than Martina’s. “Chris wanted to win,” Lieberman says, “and Martina just wanted to play.”
Richards helped Martina think about the strategy of a match for the first time, and she sharpened Martina’s strokes, which needed work. especially her erratic backhand and forehand volley. Estep’s greatest contribution was convincing Martina to attack, attack, attack Chris all the time to take advantage of her supreme athletic skills.
Once Martina began to play Chris like that – storming the net and serving and volleying at every opportunity, even using Chris’s weak second serve as an approach shot to take the net — the dynamics of their matches abruptly changed. Dennis Ralston, Chris’s coach, said Chris now had to slug passing shots by Martina so often it became near- impossible for Chris to win. And the whole balance of the rivalry shifted until Chris finally adjusted and gained the confidence to come to the net more herself. At one point, Martina beat Chris 13 straight matches — a stat that was unthinkable early in their careers, when Chris held a 20-4 head-to-head edge.
Q-4. Women’s tennis has always been colorful in the personalities that came together on court to do battle for the world’s greatest championships. Naturally, some believe even Chris and Martina had more interesting dynamics in their rivalries with others: Evert vs. Goolagong or Austin, Navratilova vs. Mandlikova, for instance. What, aside from the length of the rivalry, make this one so special?
JH: It’s hard to think of another individual rivalry where both participants could make a claim to being the best ever in the history of their sport, as Chris and Martina can. Each of them did things that will never be matched. Chris, for example, made at least the semifinals of 52 of the 56 Grand Slam tournaments she played. Martina once won 74 straight singles matches, breaking Chris’s record of 54. The two of them traded the No. 1 ranking 17 times. At one point in the 1980s, they hoarded 18 of the 20 Grand Slam titles that were played.
So, there has never before been a rivalry that matches the intensity, longevity, public impact and emotional resonance of Chris and Martina’s. But, as the book explores, they were also fascinating people, and a collision of personalities and styles and looks. Few rivalries featured such contrasting protagonists – the “Ice Maiden” Chris, America’s Sweetheart – against the consummate athlete, Martina, who wore her heart on her sleeve all the time.Additionally, few athletes have the social relevance that they did. Their lockstep career march played out against a backdrop of seismic change in both sports and society wrought by the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of women’s tennis from backwater to big time.
I think another part of their appeal is that even Chris and Martina acknowledged that they regarded playing each other differently than playing anyone else. Goolagong’s stay atop tennis was relatively short compared to Chris and Martina’s. After Evonne had her first child, she cut back her schedule significantly. Though Mandlikova had flashes of brilliance, she could never sustain it. Playing a fellow Czech created a bit of a psychodrama for Martina, but ultimately, Mandlikova doesn’t even rank among the top six or seven players in tennis history. I’d put Graf, Martina, Chris, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Monica Seles before Goolagong or Mandlikova. Probably the Williams sisters too.
I can’t think of another individual rivalry in sports that could boast all that Chris and Martina’s rivalry did. It’s a story of excellence, a story with built-in tension and conflict, a story of courage and a story about two people who fervently wanted the same thing, found each other in the way, and ultimately forgave each other for it.
Q-5. As a sports journalist, were there significant differences in exploring the rivalry of two great women athletes from those of many rivalries between male athletes or between teams? Is there something specific to Chris and Martina’s story resulting from being alone—together—as women at the top of an internationally embraced sport?
JH: Writing about teams is so different because the principals in the story are so numerous. And I would never say that male athletes are incapable of the sort of connection that Chris and Martina had during their careers. But though the book’s title is The Rivals, I think the sub-title — “Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship” — captures what I thought was different and fascinating about their situation in sport.
As I was writing this book, there were so many questions to ponder and answer, starting with: How were Chris and Martina able to see their competition as an elevating or self-enhancing experience rather than a negative one?What did their sustained excellence and ability to remain friendly rivals reveal about them as human beings, not just competitors? How were they able to navigate 16 years of often cutthroat competition, but still indulge in niceties such as playing doubles together as young stars, or rooting for each other in the twilight of their careers?
In addition to giving an intimate portrait of both women as people, the book deals quite a bit with the second part of your question — that is, Chris and Martina’s social relevance. Remember, Billie Jean King founded the first all-women’s pro tour, the Virginia Slims, in 1970, just one year before Chris’s rousing debut as a 16-year-old at the 1971 U.S. Open. Martina joined the pro tour in 1973, the same year Billie Jean King played and won her famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs. That match, for all intents and purposes, was the birth of the entire modern women’s sports industry.
In the book I assert that in many ways, Chris and Martina’s rivalry was akin to one long conversation that continued many of the arguments and dreams that Billie Jean first laid out: What should the female athlete look like? How should she behave? Perform? Compete? Would paying customers care enough to watch? Should female athletes trade on their sex appeal?
Women tennis players of Billie’s era had to carve out a place for themselves in what had been a strictly man’s world – the province of the sports superstar – and they met quite a bit of resistance and social censure. Even when Chris and Martina came along, women athletes were still reflexively derided as freaks or arrested tomboys. They were often called lesbians whether they were or not. I think part of Chris’s appeal was she had a way of seeming to be everything to everybody. Some fans saw her as the antidote to big-mouth feminists and others saw her as the flowering of this new feminist dream of the career woman who could have it all. Evert was also the teenage prodigy who made teenage prodigies the norm in women’s tennis. She showed that a traditionally feminine woman could also be a sports champion. In short, she made people comfortable.
And Martina? The book shows how she revolutionized the way in which athletes train and perform. She presaged what life would be like for people who dared to be openly gay. She defected from communist Czechoslovakia in 1975 and rose to tennis prominence before the Cold War ended and became a symbol of bravery and freedom. But along the way, her outspoken assessments of things forced people to think about the difference between what rights or protections America promised its citizens, and what she thought America delivered, particularly to gays or women.
Different as Chris and Martina were, they were both originals, and both revolutionary.
Editorial Reviews of Johnette Howard’s “The Rivals”
“Together, match by match, final by final, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova changed women’s tennis forever. I watched their rivalry with awe and pride: two remarkable athletes, fierce competitors—and good friends. It’s hard to remember what it was like for women and women athletes in particular back then; Johnette Howard captures it all in vivid detail. The Rivals is must reading for anyone with a passion for tennis and for anyone curious about Evert and Navratilova’s utter transformation of the women’s side of the game.”
—Billie Jean King
“For all our seeming familiarity with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Johnette Howard takes us deep inside the greatest rivalry in tennis history to reveal how it took the two champions the length of their twenty-year tennis war to truly know and love each other and themselves. With diligence and skill Howard chronicles their magnificent battles on the court, their turbulent times off the court, and the civil wars they waged within their own fragile psyches. It makes the journeys taken and the destinations reached all the more remarkable.”
—Mary Carillo, CBS Sports
“With Chrissie and Martina as the leading ladies, Johnette Howard insightfully takes us on a marvelous tour through the panorama of the rise of professional tennis. She digs well below the surface of a tennis court to probe celebrated psyches as never before.”
—Bud Collins, Boston Globe/NBC
“Finally, here is the definitive, inside-out look at one of the most gripping rivalries and relationships in sports. Johnette Howard’s insightful and writerly book is the story of friendly enemies, and enormous friends—two women who were alternately competitors and confidantes. It places Evert and Navratilova alongside Palmer and Nicklaus, Magic and Bird, and Ali and Frazier, but it also, rightly, sets them apart, historically inseparable and unique.”
—Sally Jenkins, coauthor of It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts