As half of one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time, Chris Evert is probably the “half” less appreciated today. Her battles with Martina Navratilova grew to legendary status as they met so often in the final of majors.
The fact that Navratilova’s career extended years beyond Evert’s is perhaps part of the reason the Czech-American is better known today.
Evert was a powerful baseline player. Navratilova had the ultimate serve-and-volley game. They battled during an era when these two playing styles clashed on tennis courts around the world.
But there was something else different between these two champions. Their on-court demeanor and individual personalities were as opposite as night and day.
The one thing they did share in common was an ultimate drive and a fervent determination to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
What distinguished Navratilova throughout her career was a refusal to acknowledge boundaries that attempted to confine her. She rose up time and again to set aside taboos and prejudices in addition to a myriad of long-standing tennis records.
Navratilova became a one-woman wrecking crew. She drove herself to excel on every surface and in the process dominated the game for years.
She managed to capture 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 31 Grand Slam doubles titles. Add to that 10 mixed doubles titles and you have a full complement of tennis achievement equaled by no one. This is just the first layer of records Navratilova shattered during her long and illustrious career.
Navratilova’s Tennis Career
Life in the early days was not easy for the young Czech, who asked the United States government for political asylum in 1975, when she was 18. She became an American citizen in 1981 but reestablished her Czech citizenship in 2008.
When Navratilova began playing tennis professionally in 1975, she was stocky in contrast to her current svelte physique. However, there was no denying her immense talent. In 1975, she was a finalist at the Australian and French Open, where she lost to Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Evert, respectively.
It wasn’t until 1978 that she won her first Grand Slam title. She defeated Evert at Wimbledon and took over the No. 1 ranking. From that point on, there was no stopping Navratilova as she won title after title.
Evert’s Tennis Career
At 16, Evert made her Slam debut at the 1971 U.S. Open, where she mowed down the competition on the way to the semifinals. There she met and was defeated by Billie Jean King, 6-3, 6-2.
Not too shabby for a teenager taking her first tentative step into the limelight. Back then, there were virtually no teenagers playing professional tennis, unlike today.
In 1973 Evert improved, finishing runner-up at both the French Open and Wimbledon. In 1974, she won both of those events.
For the next five years, Evert dominated the women’s game. In 1975 she won the French Open again and captured the U.S. Open, a title she would win for the next four consecutive years. In 1976, she took back the Wimbledon crown.
As Evert reigned supreme on the tennis courts, she was being called “The Ice Maiden” of tennis. Today we might have called her “The Terminator.”
The Evert-Navratilova Rivalry
In the late '70s, a new rival was pushing her way onto the tennis scene—Navratilova. The young lady from Czechoslovakia made her way rapidly to the top of the women’s game, where she inevitably met Evert.
At first, Evert dominated their matches. Navratilova did not like losing. It got under her skin and motivated her. It pushed Navratilova to lose weight, get in shape, hire a coach, and go after the American.
Evert was smart, and her play resembled her intelligence. She possessed a powerful two-handed backhand, one the best in the game. If you ventured to the net, Evert had the ability to pass you on either side.
With excellent speed and footwork, she used her entire arsenal to defeat Navratilova early in their rivalry. Eventually, Navratilova became the dictator with her fast-paced serve-and-volley style of play, paralleling the rise of John McEnroe, who overcame Bjorn Borg’s dominance on the men’s side.
Consider this: Borg and McEnroe played each other 14 times in their great rivalry. Evert and Navratilova played each other 80 times from 1973 to 1988.
As their matches grew tighter, Evert became more focused, consistent, patient, and determined. Navratilova grew more agitated and volatile, often arguing with the chair umpire or quipping and joking with the crowd.
The rivalry between Evert and Navratilova became the central spoke of women’s tennis in the '80s. The rivals bore the brunt of building the women’s game. While they each had their fans and detractors, overall their rivalry was positive in building a fanbase for their respected sport.
Like Borg, Evert’s game was best suited for clay, where she dominated. From 1973, Evert won 125 consecutive matches on clay, losing only seven sets. Her record stands today as the best among men and women alike.
In all, she won seven French Open titles. In the process, Evert had to defeat Navratilova three times in three-set matches at French Open finals.
While Evert composed herself like Borg, Navratilova became the McEnroe of the women’s game, evolving her serve-and-volley style to an art form that few, if any, could disrupt or mimic.
As she honed her skills, Navratilova reined in her excesses on the court and became stronger mentally.
Over the course of their rivalry, Evert faced Navratilova in 14 Grand Slam finals, losing 10. Evert played best on clay and on hardcourts. Navratilova’s best surfaces were grass and indoor carpet.
Overall, Navratilova holds a 43-37 edge in their head-to-head meetings.
Evert holds the record at the U.S. Open for the most wins in singles competition, with 101. She won at least one major each year for 13 consecutive years between 1974 and 1986, highlighting her mastery of consistency and focus.
Her legacy is firm, rooted in the core of her belief in herself and her game. Evert’s domination, with her pure strokes, pinpoint placement, and stern countenance became the perfect foil for the colorful and often irascible Navratilova.
Navratilova’s favorite surface was grass, where her supremacy was unmatched. She reached the singles final at Wimbledon 12 times, winning the title nine times—a modern record.
Navratilova remains one of three women to have achieved a career Slam in each discipline—singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
Together Navratilova and Evert became the popular staple on the women’s tour, building for future rivalries and leading the way for today’s game.
As today's news brought the story of Navratilova's battle with breast cancer, it is only natural that those of us who love and write about tennis look back on this rivalry that defined the women's game back in the '80s—when two great champions battled each other week in and week out for supremacy of the game they both loved...