Chris and Martina – Why the Rivalry of the Century Still Matters

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Bill Simons

Wimbledon

There was Ali and Frazier, Magic and Bird, Wilt and Russell, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. But other than Serena and Venus, no sporting duo can compare with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Once Billie Jean King set the table, Chrissie and Martina were the story of women’s sports for decades. Borg and McEnroe played only 22 times. Rafa and Djokovic have faced off 59 times.

Amazingly, after Chrissie and Martina played their first match in Akron, in 1973, they would battle 79 more times. Martina prevailed in the “Rivalry of the Century” 43-37. But both left the game with 18 singles Slams. Both call Florida and Colorado their homes, both are superb broadcasters, both have successfully battled cancer and are fierce warriors for good health.

Originally both were typecast.

Chrissie was one of the most deadly right-handed baseliners in history. Her groundies were impeccable, her will was iron, her expressions were few. Still, she was perceived to be as sweet as she was efficient. But Martina, in a press conference Sunday to promote an upcoming documentary on the two of them, recalled, “Chris seemed so prim and proper. But then she has a glass of wine and…she tells the dirtiest jokes…I still remember some of them.”

Once engaged to Jimmy Connors and more than active in the dating scene, Chrissie is now a mother of three sons and a veteran of marriages to a tennis player (John Lloyd), a skier (Andy Mill) and a golfer (Greg Norman).

A net-charging southpaw, Martina was at times cruelly locked out, marginalized and viewed as the outsider. Rather than celebrating her athleticism, her hard-earned muscularity, her groundbreaking commitment to fitness and nutrition, her dedication and her willingness to take risks, critics dismissed her as the bad guy.

Just as Djokovic can do little to dent the massive adoration fans hold for Rafa and Roger, Martina had no clue how to counter the deep affection for America’s tennis sweetheart. After one victory, she was left to hug a light pole.

Plus, Martina (who earlier had bravely left her family and communist homeland) came out of the closet, and she was rather emotional.

The candid commentator Ted Tinling noted, “Martina goes from arrogance to panic with nothing in between.”

“She would say anything,” Chris recalled. “She was…very opinionated, very controversial. She was ready to attack any issue…She wore her heart on her sleeve.”

For decades there was always plenty going on between Chrissie and Martina. Pals and doubles partners for a while, they then became fierce rivals. It didn’t help that Navratilova’s coach, Nancy Lieberman, told the Czech native she had to hate her foe. At one point, Martina won 17 matches in a row.

Still, time and again, at tournaments, once the finals rolled around, Chrissie and Martina were the only ones left. So, in the locker room, Martina would offer Chrissie a bagel. Rivals inevitably bond. Roger and Rafa held hands during Federer’s retirement ceremony, and Chris and Martina long ago became dear friends.

At their press conference the duo giggled at inside jokes, interrupted each other with glee, finished each other’s sentences and shared their astounding common history. Sure, there was no mention of how Chris first slept with her future husband in Martina’s bed while on a visit to Navratilova’s mountain home.

Instead, they spoke of tourneys they shouldn’t have won but did anyway, and how Martina told her foe to ditch her wooden racket. And Evert spoke of women’s sports in general: “Men have been athletes for thousands and thousands and thousands of years…They’ve been the fighters. Women have been the nurturers. It’s not until this century that women became athletes.

“In the beginning [with Martina and myself] there was a little cattiness, a little jealousy. I mean 100% because women were not used to being in that role.”

Chris conceded how stubborn she was. She noted that, “Champions are that way,” and recalled that she took forever before she would come to net against Martina, and was the last to give up playing with antiquated wood rackets.

For her part, time and again Martina joked how clueless she was. But when she learned that Chrissie had cancer, she was quick to bring her pasta, soup and homemade bread.

Now Martina and Chris have bonded deeply as cancer victims who are using their platforms. They tell everyone, “Be aware. Feel something, say something. Know your body and family history. Keep your appointments. Get all your tests.” If Chris had waited three more months on her ovarian cancer she would have been a goner.

On top of all this, Chris and Martina were brave advocates for tennis to resist the sportswashing of the deeply repressive Saudi Arabian regime. Plus, at a time when many wonder if democracy is in danger in America, Martina and Chris had this candid exchange with the press.

Q. Martina, you’re revered for your willingness to speak out and your incredible move where you left your family.

MARTINA: Exactly. After that everything is a piece of cake.

Q. You came to a land of democracy and freedom. Now very sadly many feel our nation is in trouble – that democracy is at risk. What are your feelings about our land and what can be done?

MARTINA: I’m very active with the Democratic party in Florida, though we probably will lose Florida. I gave money to the Biden campaign. I’m speaking out. I’m doing the Zooms, tweeting my little heart out.

I’ll be involved. If there is a way for me to contribute to the campaign…I’ll do that.

Q. Does it upset you that democracy seems at risk?

MARTINA: Look, we’re not there yet. It’s like being afraid of losing. You can’t go into a match being afraid…If we lose, then you can ask me what it feels like.

CHRIS: I have doubts about both. I’ve always wanted Biden – he’s been my pick for sure. But the last few days were kind of sad. It was depressing for me to watch the debate.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know which way I’m going. I don’t know if they’re going to get another person. I don’t know if I’m going to vote for Trump.

MARTINA: No, if you vote for Trump, I’m not talking to you.

CHRIS: No. But, it’s the elephant in the room, me included. We don’t really want to talk about it.

I love Biden. I’ve met him. He’s a nice guy. He’s done a lot for the country in the last 40 years. But then there comes a point where you want a sharp president. You want somebody sharp.

MARTINA: You think Trump is sharp?

CHRIS: My point is that…

MARTINA: He had a bad night.

CHRIS: My point is that I’m worried.

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