HomeLearning CenterBitter rivals. Beloved friends. Survivors.

Bitter rivals. Beloved friends. Survivors.

Originally published by Sally Jenkins for The Washington Post

There is an audible rhythm to a Grand Slam tennis tournament, a thwock-tock, tock-thwock of strokes, like beats per minute, that steadily grows fainter as the field diminishes. At first the locker room is a hive of 128 competitors, milling and chattering, but each day their numbers ebb, until just two people are left in that confrontational hush known as the final. For so many years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were almost invariably the last two, left alone in a room so empty yet intimate that they could practically hear what was inside the other’s chest. Thwock-tock.

They dressed side by side. They waited together, sometimes ate together and entered the arena together. Then they would play a match that seemed like a personal cross-examination, running each other headlong into emotional confessions, concessions. And afterward they would return to that small room of two, where they showered and changed, observing with sidelong glances the other’s triumphalism or tears, states beyond mere bare skin. No one else could possibly understand it.

Except for the other.

“She knew me better than I knew me,” Navratilova says.

They have known each other for 50 years now, outlasting most marriages. Aside from blood kin, Navratilova points out, “I’ve known Chris longer than anybody else in my life, and so it is for her.” Lately, they have never been closer — a fact they refuse to cheapen with sentimentality. “It’s been up and down, the friendship,” Evert says. At the ages of 68 and 66, respectively, Evert and Navratilova have found themselves more intertwined than ever, by an unwelcome factor. You want to meet an opponent who draws you nearer in mutual understanding? Try having cancer at the same time.

“It was like, are you kidding me?” Evert says.

The shape of the relationship is an hourglass. They first met as teenagers in 1973, became friends and then split apart as each rose to No. 1 in the world at the direct expense of the other. They contested 80 matches — 60 of them finals — riveting for their contrasts in tactics and temperament. After a 15-year rivalry, they somehow reached a perfect equipoise of 18 Grand Slam victories each.

On some slow or rainy day, when the tennis at Wimbledon is banging and artless as a metronome or suspended by weather, do yourself a favor. Call up highlights of Evert and Navratilova’s match at the 1981 U.S. Open. They are 26 and 24 years old, respectively, honed to fine edges. It’s as if they were purposely constructed to test each other — and to whip up intense reactions from their audiences, the adorable blond American middle-class heroine with the frictionless grace against the flurrying Eastern Europeanwith sculpted muscles who played like a sword fighter.

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