Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, head-to-head
30 years ago at Roland-Garros, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played their 14th and last Grand Slam final, bringing a fitting end to one of the greatest top-level rivalries even seen in the history of sport. In 2001, again at Roland-Garros, they looked back at their respective careers, while journalist Gil de Kermadec was busy with his camera. They obviously spoke in great depth about the 80 matches between the two of them, four of which came in the final in Paris. Theirs was the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis, but there was more to it…. Once their words are interlaced, it is clear to see that their lives were inextricably linked. And at the end of the day, the two great rivals were also friends.
"When I first made it onto the circuit, Chris already had a reputation as a player. She was two years older than I was but the gap seemed even bigger since she was an early bloomer. She was everything that I dreamed of being, but in her eyes I probably came across as just some peasant from Eastern Europe who was overweight after discovering junk food! In our first match, I just hoped she’d remember my name at least. She beat me in two sets, but the first one was tight and it gave me hope that I might have a chance at a later date."
"I didn’t know what to expect the first time that I played Martina. I didn’t know her at all – who she was, how she played… I discovered a very chubby player who complained a lot when things didn’t go her way. But I remember thinking that with her lefty game and her talent on the volley, she was going to cause everyone a few problems, myself included, if she decided to make the necessary effort to improve her condition physically."
Chris vs. Martina
Navratilova: "The situation became difficult for Chris to manage once I started being able to beat her. You also have to understand that she was in a more awkward position that I was. It was tough for her – a teen champion, virtually unbeatable, and suddenly she saw that she could lose to someone who also happened to be her friend. It was a new situation for Chris: her other friends on the Tour were never good enough to worry her on-court!"
Evert: "We were rivals for 18 years. And over such a long period of time, there are always going to be some awkward moments where we didn’t get on as well, where there was more distance. That also tended to happen with our entourages. Our coaches were the first to tell us: 'You can’t be friends with your biggest rival'."
Chris and Martina
Navratilova: "The more we came across each other, Chris and I managed to become friends. We’d go out together at tournaments, we’d go to the cinema with other friends… particularly in Paris, actually, where we’d stay in the same hotel. This closeness with the Americans actually got me into trouble with my federation because I was never with the other Czech players! I really used to spend all my time with Chris, since we also played doubles together. We played doubles together in the 1975 and 1976 seasons, then after that Chris didn’t want us to play together any more. But we had some good fun those years. We won Roland-Garros in the first year, Wimbledon the second… We made a very good team."
Evert: "And the years where we played the Fed Cup together we didn’t lose many matches." (two titles, in 1982 and 1986, with the Americans winning virtually every tie 3-0)
Chris vs. Martina at Roland-Garros
Navratilova: "We’d met four times in the final at Roland-Garros - with the first and the last of our 14 Grand Slams finals. The first in 1975, I was still lacking in experience, and even though I won the first set, I didn’t know how to see out the match after that."
Evert: "In our first final in 1975, Martina was still a little chubby and mentally fragile. Her backhand wasn’t great either. I bombarded it all match and I won in three sets, but the last two were relatively straightforward."
Navratilova: "And then there were the three consecutive finals in 1984-85-86. Those were absolutely epic. My title in 1984 was perhaps my greatest victory: 6-3, 6-1 over probably the greatest player on clay in history – that was… nice (she smiles with a glint in her eye)! It was a tournament where I was under a lot of pressure as well. I was looking to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time, so even though it wasn’t the calendar Grand Slam, it was still extremely rare. There was also a bonus of a million dollars if I managed to do it – which was a lot of money for women’s tennis at the time. And despite all that pressure, I managed to play my best tennis at the right moment. It’s a strange feeling when you have the impression that the court on the other side of the net is really big, while yours is easy to cover. Being in the zone really is an incredible feeling."
Evert: "When we played in the French Open final again in 1984, it obviously wasn’t the same Martina. She was fit and had improved her baseline play. I’d go so far as to say that her movement was better than I had ever seen on clay. She was playing the best tennis of her life in the mid-80s, and she thrashed me 6-3, 6-1. She’d learned how to put topspin on her backhand, she had a fearsome slice and I just couldn’t find the answers."
Evert: "In 1985 it was even worse, because I had lost to her 13 times in a row, 13 defeats in a year-and-a-half… But I won the match that counted the most. On an emotional level, that Roland-Garros was my finest hour. I was 30 years old and no-one thought I could win any more. I remember at 5-5 in the third set, I was 0-40 down on my own service. I said to myself: 'It all comes down to this'...
Evert: "... And I held service. And I won the next game. Backhand passing shot down the line on match point, even though I was one or two metres behind the baseline and Martina’s approach to the net was a good one… A dream of a backhand passing shot, and then I leapt in the air. I’ll never forget that moment. I so rarely had the opportunity to win during my career as an outsider… I cried, my brother cried, my coach, even my father on the telephone… I was coming to the end of my career and I was losing a lot of matches… I knew exactly the extent of what I’d just managed to achieve – more than when you arrive on the scene at 18 and you win straight away."
Navratilova: "In 1985, I made the mistake of under-estimating Chris. I’d won six of the last seven Grand Slams and I thought I couldn’t lose. But Chris played really well and I got nervous towards the end of the match. I can’t have too many regrets though – it was an incredible match and both of us played extremely well."
Navratilova: "And then there’s the 1986 final where I got lost in trying to out-think her. I said to myself: 'If I do this then Chris will do that so I’ll do the other…' and I lost all my spontaneity. I would’ve been better off not preparing anything at all and simply playing my own tennis! It’s a mistake I made once, one single time in my career, but at precisely the wrong moment. And it’s no coincidence that it came against Chris."
Evert: "1986 was a similar scenario actually. I wasn’t the favourite, and I won in three sets. I’d learned to stay away from Martina’s backhand and to block at the baseline by going deep on her forehand, and that way I could get to the net before she did. Roland-Garros 1985 and 1986 are the titles I enjoyed the most. When victories become harder and harder to come by, they take on more significance."
Chris, Martina and the rest of the world
Navratilova: "When people ask me how many Roland-Garros titles I won and I say 'two', I want to add 'only two'. 'Only' because with the last two finals against Chris and the one I lost 8-6 in the third set against Steffi Graf the following year (1987), I wasn’t far off winning another French Open title or two…"
Evert: "I realise that I often had quite an easy time of it in the French Open final. Olga Morozova, Wendy Turnbull and Mima Jausovec were all excellent players, but they didn’t have what it takes to beat me on clay. Olga and Wendy were more grass-court players, and Mima was a battler but didn’t really have a go-to shot, so I didn’t feel under threat against them. Virginia Ruzici, at a push, she could give me a few headaches. When she had her back to the wall, she would hit these enormous moon balls that would push me way back behind the baseline. She really did try my patience… but she never beat me. Actually, between Margaret Court and Steffi Graf, there was only really Hana Mandlikova who had the shots to mix it with the rivalry that Martina and I had."
Navratilova: "It was the two of us fighting it out for the majors for so many years… Hana Mandlikova was the only one who could occasionally get up to our level."
Chris and Martina (part II)
Evert: "Despite a more tense period at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, there was always a lot of respect between us. At the beginning we were friends, and we became friends again later on. Yes, Martina was a rival, but I think that it was actually quite a friendly rivalry compared with what it could have been, 80 matches, 60 in finals, 14 in Grand Slam finals… There aren’t many rivalries in sport as strong as that. And despite it all, when I lost Martina would come over and try to cheer me up in the locker room, and when she lost, I’d be the one putting my arm around her shoulder."
Navratilova: "Women’s tennis has always struggled to get the recognition that men’s tennis does. Even the specialist media always give the men more coverage. The treatment that women’s tennis gets has improved a little in recent decades, and I think that our rivalry had a fair bit to do with it. Chris and I proved that women’s tennis could be thrilling."
The seven-time Roland-Garros champion by Andy Warhol.
The Evert - Navratilova rivalry by the numbers
- 80 matches (Navratilova leads the head-to-head 43-37)
- 14 Grand Slam finals (Navratilova leads 10-4)
- 5 Roland-Garros matches (Evert leads 3-2)
- 4 Roland-Garros finals (Evert leads 3-1)
- 7 Roland-Garros titles in singles for Evert, the women's all-time record (1974-75-79-80-83-85-86), 2 for Navratilova (1982-84)
- 7 Roland-Garros titles in doubles for Navratilova, the women's all-time record (1975-82-84-85-86-87-88)... with the first one with Evert (Chris also won in 1974).
- 18 Grand Slam titles for each one in singles.