There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.
By the time Navratilova and Evert walked onto a breezy Court Philippe Chatrier for the 1985 French Open final, the greatest of all tennis rivalries had almost ceased to be a rivalry at all. Dating back to 1981, Navratilova had won 20 of her previous 23 matches with Evert, including their last four Grand Slam finals. One year earlier, Martina had dealt Chris what appeared to be the coup de grâce when she rolled past her, 6-3, 6-1, at Roland Garros. Evert’s final refuge and fortress, the red clay of Paris where she had once gone unbeaten for eight years, had been breached. Some wondered how much longer Evert, who turned 30 at the end of 1984, could deal with playing second-fiddle to a woman she had once dominated.
Rather than a sign of terminal decline, though, the ’84 French final turned out to be a low point for Evert, a trough that would gradually work her way out of over the next 12 months. In the US Open final that fall, she had won a set from Navratilova before losing in three. At a Virginia Slims event in Delray Beach in the spring of 1985, Chris had snapped a 13-match losing streak to Martina. “Its about time you beat me,” Navratilova said with a smile at the net.
Since 1981, Navratilova had employed a dazzlingly athletic attacking game that had suffocated the baseline-hugging Evert. As precise as the American’s passing shots were, she couldn’t make enough of them to beat Martina. With prodding from her coach, Dennis Ralston, Evert began to move forward more in ’84 and ’85, and take the initiative from Navratilova when she could. In Paris, that more aggressive mindset had helped Evert hold off two teenage up-and-comers, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini, in the fourth round and the semifinals.
And it helped her build an early lead against Navratilova in the final. Evert won the first set 6-3; while Chris was hitting crisply and dictating play, Martina, bothered by the wind, was struggling with her serve. Before the final, Evert's husband, John Lloyd, advised her to hit the ball high and keep it out of Navratilova's strike zone on her forehand side; it was an unorthodox but effective tactic. When Evert went up 4-2, 15-40 in the second set, one point from a double break, her lead had begun to look insurmountable. But the question still remained: Could she close out Navratilova? At the US Open the previous fall, Evert played brilliantly but couldn’t come up with the killer shot that would vault her to victory. It was one of the few times in her career when she hadn’t conquered her nerves; her losing streak to Navratilova had only exacerbated them. When it was over, Evert had been unable to look Martina in the eye.
“It was the most devastated I’ve ever been over a tennis match,” Evert told the journalist Johnette Howard. “All I wanted to do was get off the court.”
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How devastated would Evert have been had she lost her lead to Navratilova at Roland Garros? She almost found out. Seemingly out of it, Martina rallied to hold for 3-4, and reached set point at 5-4. From there, for the next 90 minutes, the match became one long seesaw ride, as each woman found her best when she was behind, only to falter with the lead.
Evert saved set point at 4-5 and served for the match at 6-5. Navratilova broke and won the tiebreaker 7-4. Evert jumped back out to a 3-1 lead in the third, only to see Navratilova level at 3-3. Evert served for the match a second time at 5-3, and was broken. Finally, at 5-5, Navratilova went up 0-40 on Evert’s serve. It was the first time all afternoon she had taken the lead, and she relaxed—“When I got ahead, I couldn’t help it,” she said. Instead of continuing the desperate, ruthless attack that had brought her back from the brink, Navratilova tried to drop shot Evert. It didn’t work. Now it was Evert’s turn to come back. She held from 0-40 to reach 6-5.
“The last two games were a blur of inspired shots,” Howard wrote, “each more pressure-packed and spine-tingling than the last.”
In the waning stages of its 65th edition, the rivalry to end all rivalries reached its summit. Each woman was quintessentially herself in these moments: While Navratilova emoted after with every point, Evert coolly rubbed her wristband across her face to wipe the sweat away. After missing a lob by inches on her first match point, Evert didn’t miss on the second. Pinned behind the baseline, with Navratilova bearing down on the net, Evert sprinted to her left, slid into the ball, and hammered a backhand bullet that sped past Navratilova and landed a few inches inside the sideline. The losing streak was over.
Evert and the French crowd threw their arms joyously into the air. But it was Navratilova’s reaction that was the most memorable, and the most fitting for this rivalry that turned into a friendship. After snapping her head around in time to see the ball land in, Martina exhaled, put her head down, and then ran to greet Evert with a smile and a hug.
“We brought out the best in each other,” she said.
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*Matches subject to change