UNMATCHED: All you had to do was watch this year’s lopsided women’s US Open final (won by Kim Clijsters) to realize just how remarkable the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was.
When those two tennis legends took the court – and they faced off against each other 80 times – it was usually quite a tussle with all kinds of pride – and usually history – on the line.
From 1975 through 1986, they not only dominated women’s tennis, they were women’s tennis. They were locked in a see-sawing battle for all the major titles – Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open and French Open – and it seems fitting that the end of their careers, each had won 18 majors.
They talk about that and more in the ESPN documentary Unmatched, part of ESPN’s ongoing 30 for 30 series.
In her review of the documentary, Los Angeles Times Television Critic Mary McNamara writes: A tone of fond nostalgia casts a rosy glow over the proceedings, but neither woman shies away from discussing the difficulty of maintaining a relationship based on constant competition. Evert admits that she withdrew from the friendship when Navratilova began beating her. Navratilova too made a conscious decision, spurred on by basketball player Nancy Lieberman, to put the competition before the friendship, spending hours in the gym to develop a powerful physique that would overwhelm Evert.
But while Evert was battling with the psychology of suddenly losing, Navratilova was coping with an often hostile press. When she began winning a lot, she says, she was cast as the bad guy. “I’m playing the American girl next door,” she says, “and here I was this big muscular lesbian from a communist country.”
For those of us who came of age during the Navratilova and Evert years, and for those born later, “Unmatched” is a wonderful reminder of how one relationship can truly change the world. Long after the titles and cups and medals have been won, Evert and Navratilova are still teaching us how to be champions.
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