From 1977 to 1985, the Australian Open concluded the tennis year. So it was that during this period, the tennis world commenced its Grand Slam season at Roland Garros.
As the 1983 French Open got underway, Martina Navratilova was at the height of her powers. Twelve months earlier, showing off a revamped backhand and improved fitness, she’d taken the title there for the first time. Navratilova had also begun to turn the tide on her rivalry with Chris Evert, winning eight of their last ten matches.
But while Navratilova had earned that initial Roland Garros win in 1982, Evert remained the queen of clay, having taken four titles in Paris and countless others around the globe. Evert had also won the last two majors, including a three-setter over Navratilova in the final of the 1982 Australian Open. Hopes were high that that the two superpowers of women’s tennis would square off in the 1983 championship match (a year earlier, Evert had lost in the semis).
Navratilova raced through her first three matches at Roland Garros, dropping just seven games to up her 1983 record to a flawless 36-0. Then, on this windy Saturday afternoon in Paris, she met a keenly focused baseliner, an early Bollettieri Academy prodigy, American Kathy Horvath. In 1979, at the age of 14, Horvath had become the youngest player to compete in a main-draw match at the US Open. By 1983, Horvath was ranked No. 45, and just prior to the French Open had reached the final of the German Open in Berlin.
At the time, Navratilova had a two-person coaching team. Basketball great Nancy Lieberman was the inspired jock, who two years earlier had encouraged Navratilova to improve her fitness, often with a variety of cross-training activities such as weight training and basketball. Renee Richards was the sharp tennis mind. She’d helped fine-tune Navratilova’s strokes and provided strategic insights galore.
To steal the title of a book where much took place in Paris, call Horvath-Navratilova a tale of two tactics—for the underdog, the best of times; for the favorite, the worst of times.
Richards’ commitment to her busy ophthalmology practice meant she’d only arrived at Roland Garros on the Saturday morning of the match.
“Without having seen how I was playing,” wrote Navratilova in her autobiography, “[Richards] advised me to stay back and wait for Horvath to make the mistakes and then later in the match for me to become aggressive. She said I should just keep the ball in play, but what was the point of that?”
The strategy was indeed puzzling. Where was the logic that a player like Horvath—a former Roland Garros junior champion—would start missing, particularly since Navratilova was hardly applying any pressure? Granted both more reaction time and court territory, Horvath rallied from 2-4 down in the first set to win it 6-4. On many points, she was the one charging the net.
“That day, I was feeling the ball perfectly,” Horvath told ESPN’s Greg Garber in a 2013 story. “I felt confident I could keep her off the net. Maybe that's why she was tight, because she couldn't come in like she usually did.”
“Man, I just couldn't relax,” Navratilova said in that same piece. “I couldn't get the ball past the service line. I think if I could have gotten ahead it might have been different. But I couldn't shake her.”
Even after winning the second set at love, Navratilova remained out of sorts. Serving at 3-4 in the third, Navratilova was broken. Horvath closed out the match on her second match point.
“She played well,” said Navratilova after the match, “but it was as well as I allowed her.” For a variety of reasons, she soon parted ways with Richards.
“I think I’m playing better these days because I have a lot of confidence,” said Horvath.
But while Horvath was beaten in the next round, Navratilova would not lose again until January 1984. Her 1983 record: 86-1, including victories at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. It was the closest any player in Open era history has come to a perfect season.
Horvath retired in 1989, went on to earn a B.A. and M.B.A. from the University of Pennyslvania’s Wharton School, and spent several years working in finance for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Though Horvath herself rarely plays tennis these days, both the sport and her special moment at Roland Garros remain near at hand. Horvath’s son, R.J. Fresen, is currently on the team at the University of Virginia. Her husband, Phillip, runs an investment banking firm. Its name: Garros Group.