WATCH: Martina Predicts the Future

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Today, August 13, is International Lefthanders Day, a global celebration of we who comprise a scant 10 percent of the world’s population. While being lefthanded is considered a handicap in many realms—and is even rumored to shorten life expectancy by nearly a decade—tennis has long been a southpaw sanctuary, the sport’s record books chockfull of lefthanded excellence.

The recent book Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever, takes a thoughtful look back at two of tennis’ most accomplished lefthanders at the height of their respective powers. Authored by Tennis Channel's Jon Wertheim, Glory Days’ tennis sections focus on the supremacy of Martina Navratilova (who went 78-2 in 1984) and John McEnroe (who went 82-3). In that year, both reached the finals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. And of those six high stakes matches, the two collectively won five, the only loss McEnroe’s famous defeat to Ivan Lendl in the finals of Roland Garros.

Glory Days digs into those three Grand Slam campaigns with nuance and perspective; not merely as chronicle, but as crystal ball. Wertheim’s major premise is that much of what happened that summer strongly foreshadowed a great deal of the sports milieu we’ve come to know and occupy. The tennis gestalt of the early ‘80s even reshaped another sport, when longstanding agent Donald Dell—longstanding agent of such tennis notables as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith—and his colleague, David Falk, packaged a rookie NBA player to one potential corporate partner in such a singular way that many wondered if the young shooting guard was being positioned in the marketplace more like a tennis player, than an athlete from a team sport. The company: Nike. The client: Michael Jordan. From the Stan Smith Adidas shoe agreement that Dell negotiated in the ‘70s, to the creation of Air Jordan in the ‘80s, is indeed not too far a leap after all.

But enough about those righties. Let’s get back to the journey of lefties Navratilova and McEnroe.

Before there was Rafa, there was Johnny Mac and Martina, showing off the versatility and power of left-handed strokes.

Before there was Rafa, there was Johnny Mac and Martina, showing off the versatility and power of left-handed strokes.

Wimbledon showcased these two grass-court naturals at their pinnacles. Navratilova won the singles title without the loss of a set; McEnroe dropped just one. In the finals, each faced their toughest rival: Navratilova versus Chris Evert; McEnroe taking on fellow lefty Jimmy Connors. Evert fought hard in the first set, but Navratilova emerged the victor, 7-6 (5), 6-2, to earn her fifth Wimbledon title in the last seven years.

Connors had beaten McEnroe in the Wimbledon final two years earlier, a five-set nail-biter that lasted more than four hours. But this time, epic novel gave way to near-haiku. Over the course of 80 brisk minutes, McEnroe committed only three unforced errors to win 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, in a match he has always called his best-ever performance.

“McEnroe’s lyrical flourishes were in full effect,” writes Wertheim of McEnroe’s third Wimbledon title run. “He unspooled his sidewinding lefty serve to great effect. He attacked the net, executing angles no other player would even conceive of, much less conjure. He deployed pointillist volleys.”

For good measure, the lefty titans each also won the doubles alongside their familiar partners: Navratilova with Pam Shriver; McEnroe pairing with Peter Fleming.

While this was one Wimbledon where McEnroe made headlines strictly with his racquet, Navratilova’s fortnight was far more complicated. Her approach to so many things was innovative, be it an off-court training regimen, a new diet, the use of analytics, drawing on the expertise of multiple experts. Added to this was Navratilova’s sexuality and willingness to speak out on political issues. Years later, everything Navratilova pioneered, from support teams to social consciousness and all else, had become acceptable behavior for an athlete.

“But at the time, at Wimbledon 1984?” asks Wertheim. “A new love with a new woman? A romance being picked apart by the tabloids? The public scorn about her muscles, her entourage, the boldness to believe she was entitled to voice opinions on matters that went beyond sports? The pressure of playing Wimbledon, the crown jewel of the tennis season, knowing that she was expected to win, to hold court as it were, that any result short of taking the trophy would constitute a considerable upset? Disgust inside and outside the locker room with her rippled ‘unladylike’ body? Any one of those factors could crush a player.”

Not Navratilova. As Wertheim writes, she “brushed it all off as if it were lint on her tennis whites.”

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The marketplace and its potential riches were subjective and often unfair to Navratilova. Performance was altogether different, Navratilova’s excellence thoroughly non-negotiable.

High-quality tennis from each continued at the US Open, but in much more dramatic form than either lefty had faced all year. As anticipated, Navratilova and Evert met once again in the finals. At this stage, their rivalry stood at 30 wins apiece. Writes Wertheim, “Navratilova was only half-kidding when she suggested that they never play again, so that neither could claim superiority over the other.”

The subplot here was the crowd’s reaction to Navratilova. Three years earlier, just weeks after becoming an American citizen, she’d lost the US Open final to Tracy Austin. But during the awards ceremony, Navratilova had also been roundly applauded, a welcome to America burst of appreciation that brought her to tears. But now, with Evert, America’s longstanding sweetheart, hoping to regain her throne versus the dominant Navratilova, the atmosphere was quite different, the partisan cheers growing even louder after Evert won the first set, 6-4.

“While the crowd was, perhaps, simply supporting an underdog,” writes Wertheim, “Navratilova interpreted it differently. Here was another reminder that she was ‘other,’ that she would never be fully accepted. Later, she would recall the match as ‘one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, all those people wanting me to lose.’”

But she didn’t, taking the last two sets, 6-4, 6-4, to win her sixth straight major title.

Prior to taking the court, as Navratilova and Evert waited out the lengthy Lendl-Pat Cash semi that preceded their match, the two biggest rivals in women’s tennis shared a bagel. There was no chance of such culinary camaraderie between McEnroe and Connors as they geared up for that evening’s semi. If for a lefty tennis aficionado, this matchup offered a win-win outcome, for McEnroe and Connors, it was zero-sum to the bone, the two likely less cordial with one another in 1984 than during any stage of what is probably tennis’ ultimate frenemy relationship.

Of the 34 matches McEnroe and Connors played versus one another (20-14 for McEnroe), this was arguably their best, McEnroe taking nearly four hours to win, 6-3 in the fifth. It was a fitting close to an incredible day and night of tennis that ended at 11:14 p.m. Call this lively festival of skills—lefties comprising half the day’s marquee—the Woodstock of tennis’ early Open era.

Navratilova and McEnroe—a champion and a runner-up—share a dance at the Winner's Party after the 1984 French Open.

Navratilova and McEnroe—a champion and a runner-up—share a dance at the Winner's Party after the 1984 French Open.

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But perhaps the most revealing Slam for Navratilova and McEnroe was the one where Wertheim begins. Roland Garros helped Navratilova make a major statement. So greatly had Navratilova improved her fitness and technique that she was now able to beat Evert, long regarded as the “Queen of Clay,” on the dirt. The final was comprehensive, Navratilova winning 6-3, 6-1.

“It was as if she were simply playing an altogether different sport from everyone else,” writes Wertheim. “If her moment was being obscured . . .if the public embrace was of the arm’s-length variety . . . if her portfolio of endorsements was badly out of proportion to her achievements . . . well, that was nothing new to her.”

The marketplace and its potential riches were subjective and often unfair to Navratilova. Performance was altogether different, Navratilova’s excellence thoroughly non-negotiable.

Versus Lendl in the finals, McEnroe won the first two sets, 6-3, 6-2. It was one thing to watch McEnroe dictate the action on grass, the surface where his game was a perfect fit. But to see McEnroe commandeer clay was sublime—a dazzling mastery of movement, spin, shot selection, angles, power, touch.

Alas, so close to the finish line, McEnroe unraveled. Or did Lendl arrive? Both. Lendl won the last three sets, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, to earn his first major singles title. Open as McEnroe has become about many parts of his life, what happened in the finals at Roland Garros is one topic he prefers not discussing.

If indeed lefties die sooner, that afternoon in Paris provides a painful rationale.

More than 35 years after that eventful summer of 1984, lefty Joel Drucker remembers precisely where he was during these matches, and who he watched them with.