Michael Beloff

Sharing the pinnacle

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The Rivals: Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova

Johnette Howard

Yellow Jersey Press, pp. 400, £

One-to-one conflict injects adren- alin into sport. For a period, inevitably finite, a pair of rivals will elevate themselves above their contemporaries, and produce contests which will divide not only cognoscenti, but also the community at large, into two camps. This book is about one of the most magnetic of such contests for primacy waged over a decade and a half, between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for the unofficial title, Queen of Women’s Tennis.

What makes such a rivalry truly memorable? The talents of the pair must be equal but separate — equal because otherwise the outcome would be predictable; separate because even if unpredictable it would be tedious. The boxer must confront the fighter (Ali v Frazier); the calculator, the risk-taker (Nicklaus v Palmer); the powerhouse, the stylist (Ovett v Coe); the urbane tactician, the rough-hewn motivator (Wenger v Ferguson). Evert, the ultimate baseline player, and Navratilova, quintessentially the server and volleyer, fulfil this condition; the former dominant on clay, the latter on grass.

But a difference in character, even of culture, is a prerequisite of the appropriate elevation of excitement. Born and raised in the red, white and blue corner was Chris Evert, Miss America Pie, perfectly proportioned, blonde, tanned, blue-eyed, if not quite the ice-maiden of the sponsors’ image, at least with an orthodox catalogue of lovers and husbands. Born in, but escaping from the red corner, was Martina Navratilova, muscular physique, aquiline features, whose lesbian love life was no less complex than that of her indisputably heterosexual competitor. The scenario reflected an orthodox plot by Jeffrey Archer — a tale of a twosome who reached the top of their particular mountain by different routes, in which the younger (Martina) saw the older (Chris) first as an icon, then as a colleague, then as an opponent, and finally, in mellow maturity, as a friend.

But there is a sleight of the author’s hand, because the period when the two subjects truly vied for supremacy was very short. Rather in tennis terms there were two successive eras, Chris’s era followed by Martina’s. For 12 years one or other was ranked number one in the world. Navratilova triumphed by only the narrow margin of 43-37 in all the matches they played between 1973 and 1985. But by 1982 Navratilova had effectively gained the upper hand. Evert’s last win at Wimbledon was in 1981: six out of Navratilova’s record nine wins were since that date. Martina’s innovative training schedules coupled with her genetic advantage proved eventually too much for her erstwhile conqueror.

In a larger sense the two bridged the gap between two quite different ages. The first was the Sixties when women’s tennis was seen as no more than a warm-up for the real thing, the men’s game, and when the idea that women should enjoy not only equality of payment (still a contentious issue) but even of respect was promulgated only by visionaries such as the predecessor of this dynamic duo, Billie Jean King, victor over Bobbie Riggs in the battle of the sexes. The second is the new century when a succession of grand slam champions, first the Williams sisters, then a pair of abnormally well-known Belgians, and now a host of dynamic young Russians have incomes of almost footballer-like proportions. But, for the moment, there is no successor dyarchy to the Chris and Martina show.

The author, an award-winning sports journalist, exploits well her access to her two subjects, who have unburdened themselves with candour to her: Chris, now mother of three, Martina (miraculously) still competing at the highest level in doubles. But if there is a single lesson to be learned from their different experiences, which she well brings out, it is that what separates the women from the girls is not only talent but will.