Unmatched is a sports documentary that's less interested in the sport -- the wins and losses, the athletic brilliance and skill and effort -- than in the deep and emotional connections between these rivals and friends. That's not to say the sport is left out....
For your kindness I'm in debt to you.
For your selflessness, my admiration,
For everything you've done, you know I'm bound,
I'm bound to thank you for it.
-- Natalie Merchant, "Kind & Generous"
"Most of all, it's something that you don’t have with anyone else, going through the same thing to get to the same point in your life, but never there at the same time." Recalling her 30-year relationship with Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova sits before one of those grey-weather-wood houses that characterize east coast beaches. Navratilova looks serene and a bit bemused. "Either I won or she won. We were never in the same emotional plane at the same time, going through the same things, so we can totally empathize and all that.
This cozy look-back introduces Unmatched, the newest film in ESPN's 30 for 30 series, premiering 14 September. It also echoes comments by Evert, who notes how rare it is to know someone for that long, apart from parents or siblings. "We grew up in each other's eyes," Evert says, as the film counts off the 80 matches, 60 finals, and 14 Grand Slam finals in which they competed -- hard -- against each other. "She was in my life every day," recalls Evert.
But if their professional rivalry is surely extraordinary, the film is unusual in its own way. Alternately intimate and slick, always engaging, Unmatched is a sports documentary that's less interested in the sport -- the wins and losses, the athletic brilliance and skill and effort, than in the deep and emotional connections between these rivals and friends.
The story of the rivalry is familiar, even to viewers with only a passing knowledge of tennis. Chrissie Evert was the All-American girl and fierce competitor, who started winning early, a baseline player with a daunting two-handed backhand. She won a record six U.S. Opens, as well as seven French Opens. She started lessons at age five, with her dad. Jimmy Evert, where he was a teaching tennis pro at Holiday Park. "I remember feeling very resentful of tennis at the beginning," she says, then asks whether Martina was also a "good girl." Navratilova nods: "I was an angel." Evert nods. "At a younger age, I just followed the rules."
Their discipline and commitment are legendary. Evert was the top ranked 14-under girl in the United States, played in her first U.S. Open at 16, and two years later won both the French Open and Wimbledon. When she first played the young Czech champion Martina, Chris says, "I remember thinking, I'm in big trouble." Indeed, after losing to Evert early on, Navratilova went on to beat her 14 times in a row. She attributes this to her work with Nancy Lieberman's training regime, though she laments that Lieberman convinced her to stop playing doubles with Chris, in order to focus on beating her ("I'm not proud of the fact that we dissolved our doubles partnership," admits Navratilova).
Their tennis careers shaped their lives off court as well. When Martina defected in 1975, she says she did it to pursue tennis. "I couldn’t believe it," says Evert now, as the two sit face to face. "I knew there was a chance you'd never see your parents again." Remembering her mother's reaction ("She was devastated"), Martina sighs, "I could never do what I did then 20 years later."
Their rivalry was complicated by their closeness, their shared circumstances (ambitious and hardworking young women on the pro tour, eating and training together) and mutual respect. "I admired your honesty," Evert says, both women observing that while Chrissie was fierce and stalwart on the court, Martina was frequently emotional, tearful or angry. Evert underscores the point when she adds, "When you came out openly, I thought, 'This woman is so honest.'"
Evert's observation here leads to one of the few moments in documentary alluding to the stars' lives apart from each other. Evert does remember meeting one of her husbands (Andy Mill) on a ski trip she took with Navratilova, but this isn't a gossipy film (it makes no mentions Evert's recent, brief marriage to Greg Norman or Navratilova's at-the-time-sensational legal battles with exes Judy Nelson and Toni Layton, or her "Soviet beauty queen" fiancée, or even her recent diagnosis of breast cancer).
In leaving out these stories, the film maintains its focus on the friendship, where Evert's attention to Martina's coming out has more to do with their closeness than either one's sexuality, but opens up a brief discussion of sports celebrity. Their rivalry was often staged as an opposition: the pretty, straight American hero versus the Martina the villain. "Here I was, the big, muscular lesbian from a communist country," Navratilova says, "I came up against the Osmonds of women's tennis." She adds, "Most of it had to do with the sexuality and that was difficult." She thanks Evert ("Even before it was okay to be gay friendly, Chris was gay friendly") and they go on to discuss the other ways they supported one another -- during hard losses (to each other), and Martina's first trip back to Prague in 1986, representing the U.S. in the Federation Cup. Chris remembers the standing ovation Martina received, and Martina adds, "Taking you and Pam [Shriver] around was one of the all time great days for me."
Filtering politics and sports through such vividly personal memories, Unmatched can sometimes look a little Lifetimey, or, put another way, appealing to "women" rather than ESPN's presumed manly men viewers. There are two issues here. One, such a presumption is plainly sort-sighted and self-limiting, as it allows for offensive and patently backwards sexist and homophobic images (for instance, ads aimed at men) as well as retro behaviors by male sports professionals, from athletes to Tony Kornheiser to Jay Mariotti.
Second, it presumes its opposite, appealing to women with "womenish" images. Here that might include the film's repeated use of Natalie Merchant singing over calculatedly charming shots of Chrissie and Martina in a vintage Mercedes convertible, looking blond and gauzy. More important than this look, however, is the film's focus on the women -- as friends and athletes. The footage and photos from their competitions, as well as their outing now, when they "go out and hit" together, insists on their physical prowess as a function of their mental toughness and emotional bond. It's another way of seeing sports, not only as competition and contention, but as a relationship, shifting, nuanced, and enduring... even kind and generous.