All too often, reading a book about sports can feel like a guilty pleasure. The vast majority of sports books are written by fans who imagine themselves capable of stringing a few readable sentences together, or else they are athlete memoirs, ghost-written and rushed into the market-place as a means to capitalize on a fast fading glow of fame and athletic glory. Only occasionally are such books produced by actual writers, established wordsmiths who find fascination in the psyche of a great athlete, or in the drama of the grand sporting event.
Indeed, the numbers of sports books that aspire to Literature with a capital ‘L’ are few. One automatically thinks of the great boxing writers, such as W.C. Heinze and A.J. Liebling. Boxing provides rich and ample opportunity for metaphor, a fact that has been noted by numerous commentators. Recently I read that golf is the subject of much of the very best sports writing, though I personally would know little about this. Golf may have Updike standing gamely in its tee box, but I feel the same way about reading golf as many who decry watching it: on the whole, I’d rather be playing. Or washing the car. And I don’t even own a car.
The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship
by Johnette Howard
June 2005, 304 pages, $24.95
Yet for all that, I don’t really look towards sports books for Serious Literature. What I look for in my sports reading is solid reporting, supported by an easeful prose style. I want context, and background details I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I want to learn something of an athlete’s process, of the innate strengths and human frailties that separate great champions from the rest of us. And, of course, I want the rich dramas evoked. I want to feel the rush of adrenaline that is fuel to an athlete’s ambition. I want to know what it was like, know how it felt to be there on the field of play at the moment of greatest triumph, the instant of fullest despair. I want to be a part of the theatre, even if just for moment.
Over the last couple of years, a number of such books have surfaced. These include King of the World, David Remnick’s lucid account of Muhammad Ali’s rise to cultural and sporting prominence, and Ghosts of Manilla, Mark Kram’s bold, often lyrical re-examination of Ali’s famous blood feud with Joe Frazier. More recently Namath by Mark Kriegel offered an evocative biography of the life and times of the New York Jets legend, and now, rounding out this quartet of titles comes Johnette Howard’s The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova—Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship. Howard’s book is clear-sighted and cleanly written, and it provides compelling evidence that the Evert-Navratilova rivalry may be the single greatest rivalry in non-team-based sports.
Certainly Ali-Frazier springs most readily to mind when considering sports rivalries. Theirs was an opposition unmatched in intensity and gravitas, so that by the end, their war of attrition had become nothing less than a matter of life and death. Here were two men who, quite literally, punched themselves into mental oblivion for what they believed to be at stake. Most clearly at stake was personal pride, as is ordinarily the case with great athletes. Ali and Frazier fought three times over a four-year period, and their rivalry was marked by a necessary ferocity inside the ring, and a gravely hostile cultural divide outside of it. Such were the implications of possible defeat—literally, the potential for death (and lest we forget, Ali, who actually won the third fight in Manila in 1975, later claimed that he never felt closer to death than he did at the end of the tenth round)—one is tempted to suggest their battles transcended mere sport.
In terms of longevity, and within the realm of pure athletic endeavor however, Evert versus Navratilova takes some beating. In her introduction to the book, one that serves as a model of concision, Howard outlines the case and then quickly draws the reader in to the variety of plot lines. Even a cursory examination of the statistics makes for compelling evidence, revealing the monumental accomplishments of these two athletes, both separately and together.
To wit, Evert’s career winning percentage closed at .900 (1309 wins—146 losses). Over the course of an 18-year career, Evert reached 52 Grand Slam semi-finals from 56 attempts, including 34 consecutively to begin the run. Her record in 1974 was 103-7, and she once ran off 125 consecutive victories on clay, a period extending over six years.
Navratilova meanwhile, compiled records of 90-3, 86-1, 78-2, 84-5, and 89-3 over a five-year period (1982-1986). She was ranked number one in the world for 331 weeks, amassing a total of 167 career singles titles and 173 doubles titles (to date). At one point she gained 74 consecutive singles wins, to go with 109 doubles wins.
Take a breath.
Together, Evert and Navratilova opposed one another 80 times in singles play, with Navratilova edging the series 43-37. Of those 80 meetings, a staggering 60 were played in finals, with a championship at stake. Each woman won 18 Major singles titles, and the two of them exchanged the world number one ranking 17 times. None of which is to even begin the discussion of Evert’s and Navratilova’s cultural significance as women athletes. Or, in Navratilova’s case, as a defector from a communist country, or as an openly gay woman.
“You know, they always say in boxing that styles make the match,’’ Rivals author Howard said when we spoke recently. “All the best rivalries are like that. And the thing about Chris and Martina is that if you were to look for two people who complement each other perfectly, it’s them. You have this imperturbable seeming champion with a classic baseline game, against this emotional, consummate athlete. It was such a great clash of styles, and I think people fell in love with their story. No matter where you came from or what your politics were, one of them would appeal to you. The fact that it lasted so long, sixteen years and sixty finals, it meant that they were reliably going to show up, play for something important. To me, it became this serialized drama that people kept tuning in to.”
Howard’s book makes clear the contrasts that existed between the two players from the very beginning, highlighting Evert’s upbringing on the sunny, suburban courts of Florida, and Navratilova’s dour beginnings in the gray, oppressive tennis academy of the Czech Republic. Her book also does a superb job of contextualizing the emergence of the women’s game, it’s place within the framework of women’s professional sports, and in particular, pays tribute to the extraordinary force, commitment and humanity of Billie-Jean King.
“I think that in dramatically different ways, Billie-Jean made Chris and Martina possible. As I say in the book, she laid out the arguments, and these two lived them. Their timing was just impeccable. They came out just when there was a women’s tour, just when you could make a living, and just when there was television. They could almost go out and just have to perform because Billie-Jean had taken care of the rest—and was continuing to take care of it. She made it possible for them to be professional athletes, but I think she also made it possible for Martina to be an ‘out’ lesbian athlete too.”
That King chose to do so came at no small expense in terms of her own career. Her record in Grand Slam tennis speaks for itself, yet statistics alone fail to tell the whole story.
“Chris got very emotional about Billie. It was the only time in the whole course of interviews for the book that Chris cried, and I do think Billie-Jean is an inextricable part of their story. Chris was just so moved by how Billie went out of her way for her, time and again, unsolicited. There are all these grace notes that run through Billie’s life, but because she’s so intense some people can’t stand to be around her for very long.”
“You know, people often thought Billie was crazy, but she was right about a lot of stuff. She told me a story that didn’t make it into the book, about how she was arguing with Adidas for years because she wanted baby-blue tennis shoes and they wouldn’t give them to her. And she said, ‘It took me two years, but I finally won, and I said to them ‘You guys, you don’t get it! Why did I want blue shoes? Color TV!’’ And she looks at you as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.”
One measure of the book’s strength is that it seems to render a full biography of either Evert or Navratilova mute. Without ever attempting to be exhaustive in its approach, one gets the sense that most of the essential elements of both players’ careers are here. The portraits are vivid, the observations sharp, and the assessments of each players’ strengths and weaknesses acute.
“Both of them are incredible bright women but one of the things about Chris, as a player, is that she was so able to self-correct. Many of these players today, they get in a match and they’re looking up at the coach’s box every two seconds. She was able to figure things out herself as the match was happening. There was such an informed approach to her game. She saw Martina coming way before Martina saw it for herself, which I always found interesting.
“Also, when Martina beat Chris at Wimbledon in ‘78, if you watch that tape, the way Martina played in that match was really a foreshadowing of how she would eventually overtake Chris. But it didn’t click in for Martina for another four years—that constant attacking style that she eventually started to play. I think if the tables had been turned and Chris had been able to beat her in a match that mattered, with a new approach like that, I think she would have pounced on it much sooner. Martina though was so instinctive.”
Why did it take so long for people to warm to Martina, to embrace her as the great champion she so clearly was?
“I think a big part of it is who she was beating, a player who was so beloved. And there were times in Martina’s career too, when I think even she feels she could have behaved better. Early in her career, when she was into all these histrionics on the court, it didn’t always come across that she cared so deeply; it came across that she was petulant or cocky. She didn’t have the portfolio to match her antics, and I think that had a lot to do with it. But then you lay on top of it the fact that, at that time, I think she was the first gay person a lot of people felt they knew. She was like the trial balloon, out there all by herself, taking the slings and arrows for a whole group of people.
“To me, one of things that was amazing about Martina was how she re-situated the argument about gays and lesbians. An important note in the book is that (before Martina) I don’t think people thought of tolerance flowing the other way. It was good that she was irascible, because it confronted people with the idea, ‘Look at your bigotry!’ There had never been anybody that had done that. All these things contributed to this image she had, one that provoked strong negative reactions towards her.”
Evert dominated the rivalry, and world tennis, for what amounts to an entire era, but when Navratilova finally caught her, she arrived with a vengeance. At one point Evert suffered a run of thirteen consecutive defeats to Navratilova, and Martina at her peak was practically invincible. So much so, in fact, that there were calls in the early-‘80s for Evert to retire in a plea that she maintain her dignity. Evert, with the immense pride that marked her as a champion, felt obliged to inform reporters that were it not for Martina, she herself would be world number one, and by some considerable distance. Evert lost only eight matches in all of 1984—six of them to Navratilova.
The climax of Howard’s book is the remarkable victory Evert gained at the French Open in 1985. For almost three years Evert had been chasing Martina, and just a few months earlier, at the US Open, she appeared to be on the brink of breaking through. For once though, Evert’s impermeable mental fortitude failed her. Leading by a service break in the final, heading deep into the decisive third set, Evert tightened up and allowed the championship to slip away. The defeat was the most crushing of her career, and one that very few athletes would have recovered from.
“I always felt Chris’s comeback, her refusal to quit, was an amazing story,” Howard says. “I also think it’s under-reported. Martina got a lot of credit for re-inventing herself, yet you never hear those words with Chris, when in fact, that’s exactly what she did. Everything had come full circle for both of them. It had started out with Chris dominating and Martina, even before she had reason to, believing she could eclipse her and be number one, then making it happen. And then when Chris was knocked off her pedestal, not being number one for four years and unable to beat Martina for nearly two-and-a-half, and to have that sort of resolve when, for the first time in her life, she was in this position of not being the best. Really it was a leap of faith to think that she could be number one again.”
Evert revamped her training routine, and was encouraged by her coaches to play a more attacking game. Dennis Ralston (Evert’s coach at that time) advocated that leaving the baseline and coming in to the net more often was the only way she might beat Martina. What it meant was changing everything she’d ever known in accomplishing so much throughout her career. Such radical changes took a while taking hold.
“I don’t think she disagreed with the advice intellectually,” Howard says. “It was more that psychologically she couldn’t overcome the hurdle. She’d had so much success the other way, she had this conceit of ‘Well, let me just try…’ And she didn’t want to look stupid, you know? She was just so proud, and she just felt, ‘I’m going to get into a net match with Martina Navratilova, the greatest volleyer ever? I don’t think so.’
“The idea of Chris transforming herself wasn’t an original one, because obviously Martina had done it before her. But I thought it showed how the twains had finally kind of met. They’d both driven each other to these heights and then beyond what they knew they could do, or even what they imagined they needed to do… it elevated everything.”
The chapter in the book dealing with this historic match is riveting, and it is no less dramatic to hear Howard re-tell it in conversation. For those with any passing interest in tennis, or in the idea of sports as dramatic theatre, it encourages you to draw on the resources of the Internet and track down a copy of the match on DVD. In particular, Howard’s description of match-point, Evert’s stunning, seemingly impossible winner, and the reaction of those who saw it and bore witness, goes some way towards conveying the very essence of what makes sports a vital force in our lives.
Naturally the past always appears better because it is no longer the present, but one wonders about certain aspects of the women’s game currently. My conversation with Howard took place on the eve of this year’s US Open Championship, and while there’s something to be said for the idea that any number of women had the potential to win this years tournament (as opposed to the monopolization of the Evert/Navratilova era), there does also seem to be a dearth of real charisma on tour. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for fans to connect in any meaningful way with the players.
“I think there’s too much of a disconnect from the tennis itself,” Howard suggests. “There’s the clothing lines, the perfume lines, all the accessories. Someone like Serena (Williams) has a chance (to capture the public’s imagination), but then she only plays two matches in four months. Chris played a hundred and ten matches in ‘74. With the Williams sisters, a lot of people don’t always trust that they really are injured all the time. Maybe they are, but who knows? Maria Sharapova will make $28 million dollars this year before she even steps on the court, you know?”
Evert and Navratilova provided breathtaking drama on the court, but were equally compelling—each in vastly different ways—away from it. Howard accurately pinpoints Evert’s ‘own unique grace,’ while also making a sympathetic case for the complex, volatile, and often brilliant personality of Martina Navratilova.
“Harold Solomon has this line in the book about how things didn’t just happen to Chris Evert. She wasn’t just carried along by this fame because people thought she was cute and compelling. It was all managed and thought out. And when you think about it, she never put a footfall wrong. You can’t think of anything she ever did that wasn’t entirely appropriate to the moment. She just had this grace, and I think it’s peculiar to her. She was an original. That’s not a word that’s associated with Chris—‘original,’ or ‘revolutionary’—but she was. She had an affect on a lot of perceptions that didn’t exist before she came along, even if not necessarily in a way that was as political or daring as Martina. People think of her as being a very conventional woman, but she’s not.
“Just from a sport’s perspective, Martina definitely made people have to respond to her. Some players didn’t care enough to (do so) and some, like Chris, lit out after her. People like that raise the game, and others have to respond. You look at golf now, it’s happened with Tiger Woods. People have lit out after him and it just transforms the whole sport. Martina raised the idea of what women are capable of and it’s such a dramatic thing. All these women are not being called ‘men’ now. No one’s saying Serena hits like a guy. She hits like a woman.”
The story of Martina Navratilova’s defection to the United States has seldom been told to such dramatic or emotional effect as here. The cost, not only to Martina, but also to those she left behind, friends, family and tennis coaches alike, was immense. “I think if Martina has a regret, it’s the time that she lost with her family. It’s not that she regrets defecting, but all those years she lost with her parents and her sister. It’s the one ache that never goes away, and she talks a lot about how she can never get that back. Like many great athletes, Martina is very good at compartmentalizing aspects of her life. She goes through these periods of reckoning and reassessment, and once she cuts something, its gone. There’s not any dithering. It’s kind of like defecting, you know? There’s just something about the emotion of it she knows she can handle.”
Navratilova changed the way women played tennis, but she also changed the way people thought about sport, period. Her scientific approach to training is echoed today in the regimen of many top athletes, most notably Lance Armstrong. Her game was one of instinctive brilliance, honed by a late-developing and unremitting dedication. Off the court, she was utterly unprepared to corrupt her own personal integrity, that rare breed of athlete who, for example, turned down a lucrative ad campaign for milk because she didn’t use the product.
Evert, meanwhile, brought an uncommon elegance to her sport, proving that a woman could compete at the very highest levels without sacrifice to her femininity. One recalls the almost delicate way she’d hold her ‘off’ hand, fingers daintily splayed, as she approached each carefully measured ground stroke; and then there was that narrowing of eyes, her gunslinger’s gaze when the game, and sometimes so it must have seemed to her, the entire world was on the line. At such times, no athlete was ever tougher.
Yet for all the cultural impact both women had on sports, gender and politics, it is for their on-court battles that they will be remembered.
“Both of them had this sense of themselves, this mind set that they just couldn’t abide not being the best,” Howard says. “It was like this organic thing in them. It’s like horses when they come around the curve, they just kick in, they won’t be outrun—they have to be the first one to the barn. It’s something organic that kicks in, and they can’t stop until they’ve established it. That’s how they were… both of them.”