Chris Evert's view of Martina Navratilova went from up-and-coming danger to doubles partner to foil in a record 14 Grand Slam finals to, these days, close pal. (More Tennis News)
“My sister passed away in February, and Martina was there the whole day. She was at the funeral. She was there for the burial. She was at the house for food and stayed until 10 p.m. She and Pam Shriver were the only two players there,” Evert said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
“Martina is definitely one of my closest friends right now. We have no competition. There's no tension in our relationship whatsoever. It's a freeing kind of a feeling,” Evert said.
“I can really enjoy her and her personality now and she can really enjoy me.”
Rivalries such as theirs help define tennis history. So, too, does Wimbledon, which was scheduled to be played now but was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The most intriguing matchups — Martina vs. Chrissie, Roger vs. Rafa and both vs. Novak, Pete vs. Andre, Serena vs. Venus, John vs. Jimmy and both vs. Bjorn, no last names necessary — all include at least one Wimbledon final.
That's not by happenstance. First contested in the 1870s, Wimbledon is the oldest Grand Slam tennis tournament and holds a special role.
“Wimbledon — the sound of the word, in itself, is magical. It's historical. It's different. It's regal,” said Evert, a three-time singles champion there.
“If you were going to pick one Grand Slam to win, most players would pick Wimbledon.”
And while each Slam tournament produces memorable moments and matches, there's something indelible about those that arise at the All England Club.
The five finals between Navratilova and Evert or the three in a row between Navratilova and Steffi Graf. The 9-7 fifth set in fading light between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in 2008. The 18-16 tiebreaker between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980.
And so on.
“So many tense matches,” Federer said about his history with Nadal, “and I think they connect you forever.” Like Evert and Navratilova, they've become tight away from tennis.
One on-court key to a captivating rivalry: differences in game or persona.
“Pistol Pete” Sampras' best-of-an-era serve vs. Andre Agassi's maybe-best-ever returns, for example. And Sampras' withdrawn personality vs. Agassi's carefully cultivated “Image is Everything.”
McEnroe's serve-and-volley game against Borg's metronomic mastery at the baseline and against Connors' flat backhand and returns. The bombast Connors and McEnroe brought created conflict — and a contrast with Borg's outward calm.
“There's more intensity on the court,” Evert said.
“And each player brings their own set of fans along for the ride.” Back before they'd meet in a Grand Slam final, Evert and Navratilova paired up to win doubles trophies at the French Open and Wimbledon.
That's part of their rivalry's evolution, from the first match at Akron, Ohio, in 1973 — Evert, 18, beat Navratilova, 16, and recalls, “I felt threatened” — to the record 80th and last at Chicago in 1988, which Navratilova won to cap her 43-37 edge (including 10-4 in Slam finals).
They also had a role in the other's improvement, much in the way Djokovic said about his series against Federer and Nadal: “We're kind of complementing each other. We're making each other grow and evolve.” Evert forced Navratilova to focus more and train harder.
Navratilova forced Evert to improve her serve.
Shriver observed that dynamic up close.
“Chrissie dominated more very early, and then there was a period where things were reasonably level. And Martina, starting in '81 and '82, dominated everybody, not just Chrissie. And I thought Chrissie's character really showed when she persevered through those years,” said Shriver, who won 20 Grand Slam doubles trophies with Navratilova and played her 43 times in singles, while facing Evert 21 times.
“Chrissie made some adjustments to her game, played with a little more power, took a few more risks and was able to beat Martina a couple more times in major finals.” Some symmetry: Evert and Navratilova each wound up with 18 Grand Slam singles championships.
“In the beginning, I was beating her; I was practicing with her; we were playing doubles together. Then she started beating me, and I broke up the doubles, because I felt like I was getting too close. We went our own ways. When she was coached by Nancy Lieberman, and Nancy was teaching her to hate her opponent, we weren't getting along then,” Evert said with a chuckle.
“It really wasn't until the end of our careers, maybe the last five years, that we got along well," Evert said.
"Fed Cups brought us together. We became pretty close — as close as two top competitors could become.”