Great Rivalries: Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert

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Great Rivalries: Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert
Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert

So the final Major of the year has ended too. New records were created, history was made, and future projections are being interpolated.

Amidst all this, though, a lull has been created. The same month long lull which you face after the completion of Australian Open, with useless hard court tournaments like Indian Wells and Miami (I frankly don’t understand the need to play these tournaments between the completion of a hard court Major and the beginning of the clay court season. I thought the Masters were like appetizers for the Majors) or the useless clay court tournaments during July after Wimbledon.

The next big tournament is Shanghai Masters, which is still half a month away, and frankly, it is not even highly anticipated given that the tournaments which really matter—the Majors—are done for the year.

And now that Rafael Nadal added the only missing link in his resume, I am left with the exhausting literature of crowing him as the new G.O.A.T. or how he will beat Roger Federer’s mark of 16 Majors, or why he cannot do that given the tender state of his knees. Or why Federer is still the G.O.A.T. Give me a break.

I found it more interesting to browse youtube.com and came across this classic clip of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at the East Bourne final in 1979—a time when their rivalry was beginning to peak…precisely because of these kind of matches.

 

—Just like all great rivalries, this one has that contrasting element too. Evert the cute, delicate lady, oozing feminism, while Navratilova the strong, masculine, but equally graceful. Martina the aggressor, Chris the defender. Martina with the in-your-face attitude, Chris the laid back classy girl. Or in playing styles, Martina the classic serve-n-volley player, Evert the baseliner.

—It is easy to notice how much game has advanced since then. Whenever these players are involved in rallies, it feels like they are having a nice little practice session in the park. The serve is very slow (probably high 60s mph), and the groundstrokes are no faster.  The ball makes a different type of noise unlike today’s crisp sounds, as it should be when hitting a wooden racket with ancient strings.

—The pace of play, however, increases considerably as Martina tries to approach the net time and again, either with a deep slice backhand in the middle, or by creating angles of her own and pushing Chris out of court.

—Talking about angles, both players were creating incredible angles. Watch the second point of the match where Chris strangled Martina with an incredible double-handed slice dropping just ahead of the net. The lefty had no chance on that one.

—Now that I think about it, creating angles was far easier in those days even with a wooden racket given that the weight of the shots was not much lesser compared to today giving players that extra fraction of a second. Imagine a girl trying to create the same angles on a forehand hit by Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. The game is more exciting to watch today, but it was more beautiful then.

 

—Talking about weight of shots, Martina used her single-handed backhand only once in this clip, and relied exclusively on her slice.  Makes more sense considering that grass is much more responsive to the latter, especially against a baseliner, but Martina became much more dominant at Wimbledon after she developed her single hander.

—Who says grass doesn’t produce long rallies? At 1:24 in the clip, the ladies played an almost minute long rally spanning the full dimensions of the court. Chris kept pushing Martina away from the baseline with …. you guessed it, her cross-court forehand targeted towards Martina’s backhand. Martina barely kept herself in the point but ended it with a desperate passing shot on the run.

—The rallies looked so like the 70s. Evert’s forehand was almost exclusively limited to the cross court, hardly going down the line. Inside out forehand was, of course, absent, which wouldn’t come into picture until Ivan Lendl came and revolutionized the sport. Similarly, her backhand was mostly cross-court, but whenever she hit it down the line, it was hit deep with complete authority and confidence. Deservedly, her signature shot.

—Evert hit an almost impossible running forehand which evoked the reaction, “Oh! I don’t believe it!” by John Barrett. Well, good time to start believing it since Lendl was just across the corner, with Pete Sampras following him.

—Talking about Barrett, I love his commentary. Mostly subdued, hardly speaking more than necessary, and never during a rally. My experience of watching the tape of the Borg/McEnroe ’80 final was greatly enhanced by his broadcasting.

 

—Martina should have attacked Chris’s backhand much more. Difficult to do it with just a slice backhand.

—After an exhausting rally leaving both players catching for their breath, the chair umpire announced, “Game to Mrs. Evert Lloyd. Eight games all.” Evert closed her eyes for a second, opened it and gave out a smile. No wonder she is one of the most lovable female athletes ever.

—Is it just a coincidence, or do great returners always have better backhands than forehands? Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray. Add Evert to the list.

—No reaching for the towel between points. Priceless.

—Extreme sportsmanship spirit. You could hear the acknowledgements of good points with a “Yeah” or “Yup.”

—Evert painted the lines at least three times to save her third match point. That’s how good it has to be against the greatest female grass court player ever.

—The final two games of this clip are missing. Does anyone have them?

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