WIMBLEDON, England — What you remembered most were the laughs. In the middle of the Wimbledon semifinal. Chris Evert would hit a great shot, a winner, and Martina Navratilova would shake her head and laugh. Martina would scoop a volley out of the grass for an amazing point and Chris would drop her racket. And laugh. They were not loud. They were not even often. But they were there. Quiet, gentle, familiar. Laughs.
“Wasn’t that a little strange?” someone asked Evert afterward.”For such an intense match? To smile and even laugh at certain moments?”
“Yeah,” she answered. “I usually don’t give anything away when I play my opponents. But when I see Martina . . . well, we’ve played so many matches that by now, if there are light moments, it sort of relieves the tension.”
They have been playing each other forever, haven’t they? Chris and Martina? A never-ending dialogue between two rackets and a little yellow ball. Even the dullest tournaments had hope if the two of them might meet. Even the weakest fields could be excused if a Martina-Chris showdown was possible.
Forever? And ever. Matches and more matches. Seventy-three counting Thursday. They have had major ones and historic ones and good ones and not-so-good ones but in this one — Navratilova’s 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory — they were simply great, as intense as ever, and the prize was nearly as big as they come: a Wimbledon final, maybe more valuable now because how many more would either have left?
So the baseline exchanges were crafty and quick. The net play was rapid-fire, like video guns stuck in the “on” position. Boink-boink! Chris lobs a bulls-eye. Boink-boink! Martina dives for a drop shot. “That may be the best tennis we’ve ever played,” said Navratilova afterwards.
And yet they found time for this: Chris came to the net and poked a winner, then, surprised, she pointed at Martina: “You were supposed to go there!”
A serve was called out by the center linesman, only his voice cracked when he yelled “OUT!” and Martina rolled her eyes and Chris’ lips began to spread.
This is what you noticed. The laughter, the grins, the warm feeling. What you didn’t notice, when it finally ended, was another emotion: “I had tears in my eyes,” said Martina. “And it wasn’t for me winning, it was for Chris losing. I really wished that she could win this tournament one more time . .
“At 5-4 in the final set, I started thinking about our friendship. Then I thought ‘God, you’re crazy to be thinking about that now. . . . ‘ It actually overwhelmed me, because I didn’t expect to feel so much. She played so well, yet she lost. I felt sad about that . . . “
Sad? About winning? Well. This is how far they have come. They are longer than vaudeville, the best rivalry in sports, now, then, maybe forever. Chris and Martina. Another suitcase, another show. But Martina is 30, and Chris is 32, and is asked about retirement 100 times a day
For years they were No. 1 and 2 in the world — they jockeyed with the ranking like the last two players in musical chairs — but lately Evert has fallen to No. 3, behind Steffi Graf, the 18-year old bomber who will play Martina Saturday for the Wimbledon championship. Graf is a blip on the screen that grows brighter every second. Who knows if Evert and Navratilova will ever hold the wishbone again?
“What would it be like if you started showing up at tournaments and Chris wasn’t in the draw?” Navratilova was asked.
“Pretty strange,” she said softly. “It would be a definite void. . . . I would miss her a lot.”
The Centre Court crowd at Wimbledon Thursday obviously shared the emotion. Here was Navratilova, fighting for a record try at an eighth title, and yet Evert was the one cheered as if history rested on her racket. Surprised? Well. Doesn’t emotion always rule over numbers?
So when Evert, down a set, took Navratilova to 5-5 in the second, beat her in the sixth game, broke her in the seventh, won it with a strong net volley
— well, the crowd was a cloudburst, applause raining down.
And when Evert lost her serve in the first game of the final set and never made it up, when the match ended on a volley to the open court by Navratilova, the crowd politely applauded the victory.
But they were thinking about the defeat.
“She plays one of the best matches of her life and she loses?” said Navratilova. “Of course you’re sad. It takes a lot away from me winning because I had to beat Chris.
“When we shook hands at the net, do you know what she said? ‘I hope I didn’t take too much out of you for the final.’ I mean, what a thing to say. I put my arm around her when she said that.”
And that was how they walked off — together, side by side, dipping in sync towards the Royal Box, smiling, then disappearing into the tunnel. Who knows if they’ll ever do that here again?
“What if you came to the major tournaments and Martina wasn’t here?” someone asked Evert, a switch on the earlier question.
“I wouldn’t have anybody to talk to in the locker room,” she said, laughing. “No . . . I’m just kidding. But it’s almost like she’s family now. We’ve been together so long. We’ve seen other players come and go, but we’ve been the constants. . . .
Think about it. How many names have come and gone? How long have they been out there? All the French Opens and U.S. Opens and Australian Opens and Wimbledons and Tokyos and Romes and Clevelands and Atlantas and Team Tennis and exhibitions and clay and cement and indoor carpet? How long? When they played their first match in 1973, Chris was single, and Martina was a brunet Czech. And today Chris is single again and Martina is blond and American. How long have they been out there? Two hair colors, one husband and a country. That long.
“Over the last years we’ve gotten to know each other better,” said Evert.
“Before it was always a lot of respect on the court, but ‘see you later.’ Now it’s more socializing. We say, ‘Do you wanna go out to eat?’ It’s more of a family thing now…
“Friendship,” she said.
“Friendship,” said Martina.
There is no more enduring rivalry in sports. And it has finally come full circle — prodigies, challengers, enemies, friends.
So this latest Wimbledon semifinal was a loss for Evert, but not a defeat. A victory for Navratilova, but not a celebration. Consider it a great production number in the second act of the play, a chance to marvel and applaud and yes, even laugh. You were allowed to laugh. They laughed.
“I really wished we could have stopped this thing at 30-all in the last game,” said Navratilova, sighing. “When people talk about the greats of all time, they’ll have to talk about both of us . . . “
They will anyhow. They have no choice. Here’s laughing with you, kids. This
was splendor in the grass. Navratilova vs. Evert Martina Navratilova’s 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 semifinal victory over Chris Evert:
NAVRATILOVA EVERT First-serve percentage 76 81 Aces 4 0 Service winners 21 5 Double faults 2 1 Placement winners 57 58 Unforced errors 23 18 Service games held 13 11 Service games broken 2 4 Total points won 105 91 Approaches to net 93 31 Points won at net 55 18 Time of match: 2 hours, 3 minutes. CUTLINE Martina Navratilova gestures after making a point. Loser Chris Evert (left) is consoled by Martina Navratilova as they leave the court after their semifinal match at Wimbledon. Chris Evert returns a shot in her Wimbledon semifinals match with Martina Navratilova.