NEW YORK — She is the trusty sidekick, the co-star, the comic book character destined to be paired with someone bigger. Pam Shriver has won every Grand Slam tournament in tennis alongside Martina Navratilova. But she has not won any alone.
She tries. She advances. Then sooner or later, her doubles partner, the best woman tennis player on the planet, comes around to beat her. Sooner or later, Navratilova gets the trophy, and Shriver gets a handshake. This is the way it seems to go. Partners. Rivals. Sooner or later.
“Did you think you had a chance today?” someone asked Shriver, after she lost to Navratilova again, this time in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, 6-2, 6-4.
“More than I usually have against her,” Shriver said. “It’s not like she gives you 20 chances in a match. You’re lucky if you get four or five.”
“What is it?” asked someone else. “Does she just move better? Is she just stronger?”
“She moves better, she reaches better, she crosscourts better,” Shriver said with a sigh. “Face it. She plays better . . . “
She ran a hand through her curly hair. How many times has she had this press conference? How many times has she answered these questions? She is closer to Navratilova, the No. 1 player in the world, than any women on the circuit. They practice together. They win together. And yet there is no doubt who is the better player.
And that hurts. Sooner or later.
“Is this rivalry difficult?” someone asked.
“Well, sure,” Shriver said. “It’s been a lot of years knocking on the door. It doesn’t open up very much, you know. . . . I really thought I could win today. Then you get close and you drop one and say to yourself, ‘Same thing. Same thing.’ . . . “
She paused and bit her lip. Her voice was calm. But there were tears rolling down her cheeks. A joyless victory Outside, in the belly of the Louis Armstrong tennis stadium, Navratilova was being congratulated for advancing to the semifinals. It was the 16th straight time she had beaten Shriver, going back to 1982.
But this is joyless victory. Navratilova and Shriver are the most successful doubles team in tennis history. Australia, Paris, Wimbledon, New York — they have trophies from each in the last four years.
“What is it like to beat someone you play with so often?” Navratilova was asked.
“It’s not a pleasurable win,” she said.
Partners. Rivals. How strange. It is like Robin taking on Batman. Krypto trying to bite Superboy. Shriver, 24, has been the No. 4 player in the world for the last three years — behind Navratilova, 29, Chris Evert Lloyd, 31, and Hana Mandlikova, 26. But she has never been able to crack the highest echelon, and, as Navratilova put it, “unless she develops a new weapon she probably won’t.”
What do you do when you’ve weighed in at your best, and you are still a few pounds light?
You do what you can.
“Is it hard for you play a doubles match with Martina now?” Shriver was asked in the moments after her loss.
“Well,” she said, forcing a grin, “it’s more pleasant than not playing with her.” Rivals become partners When the press conference was finished, Shriver got up and walked out the side door. She passed Navratilova coming in and she smiled, and Navratilova smiled back.
Sometimes defeat and victory are miles apart, and sometimes they are right next to one another. There was a time when Shriver beat Navratilova in singles — three times, to be exact, since 1978. But when she plays her these days she must feel like Sisyphus, destined to roll that rock up the mountain, only to have it roll all the way down.
“I play Martina 8,000 times and I still can’t tell you what she’s going to do with her forehand,” Shriver said. “God, she’s tough.”
She shook her head. In less than an hour, she was scheduled to play a third-round doubles match with Navratilova. The tables would be turned again. They would need each other. They would help each other. Rivals become partners. It is a strange metamorphosis.
Then again, it has its advantages.
“Will you be OK for that?” someone asked.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I’ll go back and sob for 45 minutes and then go out and play.”
“I actually like to play doubles with Martina after I lose singles,” she added, “because we usually win and then I can go home on a positive note.”
And that is exactly what happened. CUTLINE Pam Shriver