WIMBLEDON, England — It was like turning to the final page of the fairy tale, only to find the page was ripped out of the book. Chris Evert, whom the whole crowd — perhaps the whole world — wanted to win this tennis match Thursday, was standing alone on Centre Court. It was over. She had lost. That’s what they told her.

She was not coming in.

“Sorry,” she seemed to say, hands on her hips, after a controversial line call gave this semifinal match — perhaps Evert’s last after 17 years of Wimbledon — to Martina Navratilova instead. “I’m not going anywhere. On a call like that? Sorry. I’m staying put.”

How long would she stay there? A day? A week? Who knew? It was as if the film locked in the final frame. Navratilova was frozen at the net, waiting for a handshake. The referee was frozen in his chair, waiting for a salute.

Evert was not coming in.

“Sorry,” she seemed to say, staring straight ahead, “I don’t buy it. It’s the wrong ending. Come up with another one.”

How strange. Moments earlier, this had been another classic cutthroat tennis match, with Evert trailing, 6-5, in the final set, just a point away from tying the game. She served, Navratilova returned, charged in — and Evert hit a spectacular crosscourt forehand that kissed the net, headed for the corner and . . .

. . . and what? In or out? Evert thought “in.” The crowd thought “in.”

The line judge hesitated, then raised his right hand.

Out.

Over.

“Was that the weirdest ending you’ve ever had in all your matches with Martina?” someone asked Evert, an hour after this was all done, after all the replays proved inconclusive, after Navratilova had advanced once again to the Wimbledon final, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.

“I’d say so,” she answered. “When I saw the linesman’s hand, I was stunned. Then I saw Martina at the net with her hand out. And the crowd was making noise. I don’t know. . . . I guess I just needed some time for it to sink in.”

What lousy luck. What a sad finish. Here was a classic match in a history of classic matches between the longest-running rivals in all of sports. Chris vs. Martina. Poise versus power. How many times had they played each other? Seventy-eight? For real? What was Ali-Frazier? Three times? What was the Celtics- Lakers in the NBA final? Eight? Nine?

Seventy-eight matches. And what may be the final one on the grandest stage of them all ended with Evert stunned, the crowd jeering, and the umpire bellowing, “THE BALL WAS CALLED OUT.”

This was all wrong. This was not in the script. Better they should have ended it two games earlier, when both women were at the top of their form. Now, here was a tennis feast: Martina rushing the net, shooting at Chris like a duck in a penny arcade, and Chris taking every blow, returning with stunning accuracy, passing shots that were as straight as truth, as deadly as acid. Then Martina back to the baseline, chasing down the balls, whacking them, smashing them, slicing them over the net so that they died like quail falling from the sky. And Evert chasing them down, flicking them across with venom. Shot after shot. Chris. Martina. Centre Court Wimbledon.

“Where would you rank that match with all the other ones you’ve played?” someone asked Navratilova in her post-game press conference.

“Right up there,” she said. “It was push and pull, nobody would give anything, it was a battle of wills. That’s the best I’ve ever seen Chris hit her passing shots. I appreciated that match the more it went on. It’s a shame anyone had to lose. . . . It’s a shame it had to end on a point like that. .
. . “

Right. Better they should have gone on forever. Martina should have walked out there after Chris refused to come in, hit one over the net and said, “OK. Let’s just keep playing.”

That would have been the sweeter finish. This was the real finish: Evert finally came forward, limply shook Navratilova’s hand, curtsied to the Royal Box, and left.

And that was that. In or out? Nobody knew. Not Navratilova, not the crowd, not even Evert, not really. But that was the ending — maybe the finale. Evert

has hinted at retirement. She has hinted at not coming back here. She is 33.

“If you never come back to Wimbledon again, will that ending haunt you?” she was asked.

“Oh . . . I don’t think so,” she said, shrugging. “It bothers me now, but a few days from now, when I’m in Boca Raton or wherever, I’ll forget about it. I’ll be all right.”

“Maybe it will give you motivation to come back?”

“Yeah, sure,” she said, bursting into laughter, “like five more years.”

And she left. Five years? Well, why not? For all the times she has been here, for all the matches she has played, for all the points she has won, for all the times she has raised the silver plate high above her head in victory, and the thrills and goose bumps she has provided against King, Goolagong, Wade, Austin, Mandlikova, and of course, Navratilova, all along the way? Hey. Five years would be fine.

It would give us time to get this ending thing straightened out.

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