The most storied rivalry in tennis began with a beaning.
It was the middle of the second set of the 1978 Wimbledon final, and Evert was cruising to what virtually everyone inside Centre Court assumed would be her third title in that arena. The 23-year-old American was No. 1 in the world, and had been for 138 of the 140 weeks that the WTA’s computer-ranking system had been in existence. She had won this tournament in 1974 and 1976; that she would reclaim the crown after another one-year hiatus was only logical. Perhaps most important, Evert had a 21-5 record against her Navratilova, who was playing in her first Wimbledon final, and who had yet to win a major title.
In the eighth game of the second set, desperate to get back into the match, Navratilova rushed the net and guessed that Evert was going to hit a crosscourt pass. But she didn’t guess in time, and Evert’s forehand caught her squarely on the left temple. The American ran forward to help, while the Czech theatrically staggered and fell to one knee. “I’m all right,” she told Evert with a smile.
“I think when she hit me that woke me up,” Navratilova said later.
Until the summer of ’78, the relationship between Evert and Navratilova had been everything except a rivalry. The two had begun as star and fan: A poster of Evert had hung on the wall at the club near Prague where the teenage Navratilova practiced. When a 16-year-old Martina first ran across an 18-year-old Chris at a Virginia Slims event in Florida in 1973, her jaw dropped. “I was mesmerized,” Navratilova said of watching Evert play backgammon with the tournament director. “[Chris] stood for everything I admired about this country: poise, ability, sportsmanship, money, style.” Soon Navratilova progressed from super-fan to friend, and doubles partner. The two spent their changeovers giggling at the book of jokes that Evert smuggled on court with her, but they also teamed up to win Wimbledon in 1976.
Yet it had taken five years for Navratilova to begin to challenge Evert’s singles supremacy. In 1978, with the American on a four-month break, Navratilova began by winning 37 straight matches and seven straight tournaments. She capped her run by snapping a six-match losing streak to Evert, when she saved two match points to win 9-7 in the third at the grass-court tune-up event in Eastbourne. Navratilova traveled to Wimbledon believing she was on the verge of a long-awaited Grand Slam breakthrough.
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While Navratilova was charging toward the No. 1 ranking that year, Evert was trying to decide how much she wanted to hold on to it. “The glamour was gone,” she said of her feelings at the end of 1977. “I had squeezed all the enthusiasm and eagerness out of myself.” Even her fourth-month vacation hadn’t helped. “I’m No. 1 in the world and I’m unhappy,” she told a friend.
During Wimbledon, though, she had discovered something that did seem to make her happy, even if it had nothing to do with hitting a tennis ball: She had met British player, and her future husband, John Lloyd. They went on their second date the night before the women’s final. “[I was] more eager to spend time with a new, exciting friend,” Chris recalled, “than go to my room and fret over facing Martina Navratilova on Centre Court.”
Despite their rapidly changing professional trajectories, the final began the way most thought it would, with a 6-2 opening-set win for Evert. Navratilova, the Wimbledon-final rookie, began nervously. She mistimed her curtsy to the Royal Box, took in big gulps of air as she prepared to start the match, and rushed frantically through the early games.
“She changed the rhythm of the match from the tick-tock of long rallies to something closer to a frenzied Rachmaninoff symphony,” wrote journalist Johnette Howard. Navratilova did all this while keeping up a constant flow of self-directed chatter. When she whiffed on an overhead at the start of the second set, it looked as if she was about to rush herself to a rapid defeat.
In her semi-hyper state, though, Navratilova found a winning a formula: She would pressure Evert relentlessly, and her persistent aggression would eventually pay off. After being beaned awake by the American’s passing shot in the second set, Navratilova saved three break points and held. By the time she served at 5-4, she was confident enough to outlast Evert in a long baseline rally at set point.
The third set would be a classic combination of a see-saw battle and a contrast in styles. Navratilova broke out to a 2-0 lead, before Evert steeled herself to win the next four. “She’s going to win it!” an excited Lloyd said to his friends in the stands. Unbeknownst to the Brit, though, Evert wasn’t thinking about a third title; she was thinking about him.
“If I had been hungry, the match was mine,” Evert said. “In the last four games, all I could think about was going out with John.”
As Evert hesitated, Navratilova rushed in. She won 12 of the last 13 points for the title. Her serve, her volleys, her anticipation, everything clicked; as nervous as she had looked at the start of the match, that’s how relaxed she looked now.
“It was as if everything Navratilova was going to be—or not—rose up, burst forth, and found expression in her game,” Howard wrote.
When her last half-volley slipped under Evert’s racquet, Navratilova let out a shriek, before covering her mouth and repeating, “I can’t believe it,” over and over. The two players ended in a smiling embrace at the net—Evert was happy for Martina professionally, and happy for herself personally.
One week later, Navratilova took the No. 1 ranking from Evert for the first time. But from a personal standpoint, there was one thing missing for Martina: The chance to share the moment with her family. Since defecting to the U.S. three years earlier, she hadn’t seen her mother or father. During the trophy ceremony, the Duchess of Kent asked Navratilova about her parents; she said they had traveled to the German border, where they had been able to watch a broadcast of the final.
In 1979, with the Duchess’s help, Navratilova’s mother, Jana, was able to travel to London. At Wimbledon, she and Martina were reunited for the first time since 1975. Evert spent the fortnight with Lloyd; the two had been married that April. Chris and Martina met again in the final, and Navratilova won again. They were still friends, but now they were rivals, too.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.