WIMBLEDON, England — What you noticed most was the laughter. How often do you hear that during a Wimbledon semifinal? Chris Evert would hit a great shot, and Martina Navratilova would shake her head and chuckle. Then Martina would scoop a volley out of the grass and Chris would drop her racket. And smile. It was not loud. It was not even often. But it was there. Quiet, gentle, familiar.
“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.”
Laughter. Why not? 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. For years, even the dullest tournaments had hope if these two met. Even the weakest fields could be excused if a Martina-Chris showdown was possible.
How many matches? Seventy-three, counting Thursday’s. 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 excellent as they can be. And the prize was sufficiently worthy: a Wimbledon final. How many more will either player get?
So their baseline exchanges were crafty and quick. Their net play was like a video gun stuck on “fire.” Pow-pow! Chris lobs a bull’s-eye. Pow-pow! Martina dives for a drop shot. Unforced errors? Hardly any. First serves? Almost always in. “That may be the best tennis we’ve ever played,” Navratilova said afterward.
And yet they found time for this: Chris came to the net and poked a winner, then, surprised, she pointed at Martina and yelled: “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 between two supposedly bitter rivals. But this you might have missed: sympathy. “I had tears in my eyes,” Martina said. “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. I would be as happy if she won this tournament as if I do. . . . But she lost. I feel sad about that.”
Sad? About winning? Martina? 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 Chris is asked about retirement now a hundred times a day.
For years they were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, jockeying with the ranking like the last two players in musical chairs. At first Chris was better. Then they were even. Then Martina was unbelievable. Then Chris came back.
Fourteen years of intense rivalry. Now everything is changing. 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 Thursday at Wimbledon 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 pulled ahead in that final game, and all she needed was one point to tie the set, 5-all, and send them playing on and on — win by two; it could have gone till nightfall! — the crowd was ready to leap. Instead, Martina muscled a killer serve, won the point, and soon, the match. The fans applauded politely the victory.
But they were thinking about the defeat.
“She plays one of the best matches of her life and she loses?” Navratilova said. “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 toward the Royal Box, then disappearing into the tunnel. Seventy-three matches together. 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. . . . “
Longer than most? Longer than any of them. Any sport. Longer than Magic and Bird, than Tunney and Dempsey, than Snead and Hogan. How long have they been out there? All the Wimbledons and French Opens and U.S. Opens and Australian Opens 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.
“You know, over the last years we’ve gotten to know each other better,” said Evert, smiling despite her defeat. “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,” Martina said.
There is no more enduring rivalry in sports. There is no more enduring quality in life. Finally, it seems the two have come together: prodigies, challengers, enemies, friends. That is what we can say now, after saying all the other stuff about Chris and Martina. Friends. They are friends.
So this latest Wimbledon semifinal, this magnificent display of tennis, 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 closing act of a great play, an occasion 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’d have to talk about both of us. . . . “
Not to worry: They will anyhow. 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 Loser Chris Evert (left) is consoled by Martina Navratilova as they leave the court after their semifinal match at Wimbledon. Matina Navratilova gestures after winning a point. A glum Chris Evert shakes hands with the umpire after loss to Martina Navratilova.