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OPEN ERA AT 50: THE GREATEST RIVALRY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Borg-McEnroe burned very brightly… but very briefly. That’s Bjorn’s fault. Connors and McEnroe was large and brash, but it similarly lost top-tier significance in 1985 and didn’t regain it. Pete Sampras owned Andre Agassi in the biggest moments of their compelling rivalry. Steffi Graf-Monica Seles could have been history-changing, but a madman and his knife sadly prevented that rivalry from being everything it could be. Margaret Court-Billie Jean King doesn’t carry the weight of history if only because the two women — in their values and in their matches against Bobby Riggs — cut in very different directions. Serena versus Venus was less a rivalry than a partnership, the union of a family which rose from the bottom to totally conquer women’s tennis.

Federer-Nadal was and is a profoundly important rivalry, but it was an imbalanced one depending on the surface or situation involved. Nadal-Djokovic and Djokovic-Federer have been extremely close rivalries with many memorable matches, better in quality than Fedal but not as significant in reshaping men’s tennis.

One by one, the greatest rivalries of the Open Era of professional tennis — as compelling and iconic as they are — own many shining qualities, but not as much quality as Christine Marie Evert versus Martina Navratilova.

Rod Laver versus Ken Rosewall just might have deserved a larger place in the fullness of tennis history, but that clash was born before the Open Era began. The 1972 match in Dallas between the two men is one of the most memorable in the larger run of time, but strictly as an Open Era confrontation, Laver-Rosewall wrote a few relatively short chapters.

Within the period which began in 1968 and leads to today, 50 years later, Chris versus Martina remains the gold standard by which all other Open Era singles rivalries are measured.

They rank 1 and 2 in major finals reached (34 for Evert, 32 for Navratilova). They both lack Margaret Court’s 24 major titles because they both had to go through each other at the majors, splitting and reducing their overall totals. Evert beat Martina three times at Roland Garros, Martina seven times on grass at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Whereas Maria Sharapova never became Serena Williams’ equal, and Graf did not spend the rest of the 1990s going against prime-version Seles due to the stabbing Monica suffered, Evert and Navratilova beat each other up. In a manner akin to the Federer-Djokovic rivalry, one player owned most of the early-stage meetings, while the other then made up ground and eventually took the upper hand in the latter stages of the rivalry.

Yet, Federer and Djokovic — as dazzling and important as that rivalry has been — haven’t even hit 50 meetings.

Chris and Martina? They played 80 times. They contested 61 finals. They met in 22 different major tournaments. (Federer-Djokovic: 15, which is impressive, but not about to break the Chris-Martina mark.) Over those 80 matches, Navratilova carved out a narrow 43-37 edge.

Their first major final was contested in 1975 at Roland Garros. Their last was 11 years later at the same venue in 1986. They began when Billie Jean King’s greatness as a singles player had not yet receded into history, and their singles careers ended when Steffi Graf ruled the WTA. They were, for nearly a decade, the main show in town as far as women’s tennis was concerned… and it was a show which so rarely disappointed…

… and that doesn’t represent an adequate characterization of their rivalry. It was about so much more than the numbers and facts.

The Federer-Nadal, Borg-McEnroe, and Sampras-Agassi rivalries were particularly potent and popular in their respective eras in large part because they represented such pronounced contrasts of styles. Could Federer’s single-handed backhand pierce through Nadal’s sturdy defense and topspin? Could McEnroe’s serve-and-volley game smother Borg’s baseline brilliance? Could the serve of Sampras overwhelm the Agassi return game? Seeing two dramatically different kinds of players engage in combat enhances the one-on-one aspect of tennis.

Chris and Martina took this contrast to the highest level and sustained it better than any two other players in the Open Era.

The fact that their backstories were so different only affirmed the contrasts they created on the court.

Evert was the Girl Next Door, the All-American woman easily embraced by corporate America and mainstream advertisers. Navratilova lived a complicated personal life littered with twists, turns, disclosures and discomforts which scared away advertisers. Evert presented a classically feminine image which was utterly safe and non-threatening within prevailing American culture, while Navratilova went from one extreme (way out of shape as a new-from-Europe defector to the United States) to another (uber-fit sports training revolutionary with a muscular build which didn’t fit culturally accepted notions of femininity). Much like Federer and Nadal, one half of this rivalry was icy and poker-faced on court (Evert), while the other was far more fiery and expressive with emotions (Navratilova).

While the Big Three of the early 1980s in men’s tennis — McEnroe, Connors and Ivan Lendl — engaged in various rivalries which exceeded 30 matches but did not reach 40 (none contained more than 36 meetings), Chris and Martina spent much of the 1980s throwing haymakers and building their rivalry to twice as many as 40 meetings: 80.

This was the surest ticket in tennis — either gender — and it kept delivering quality in one final after another, with both players tasting victory often enough to prevent the rivalry from being dismissed as a one-way show.

It is true that from 1982 through 1984, Navratilova lost a total of only six matches, but before and after that “Pax Navratilova,” Evert more than held her ground in the head-to-head battles which just kept coming.

That the two players were such polar opposites — and that they grew into a very warm friendship which endures today — makes it extremely hard to find any flaw in this rivalry which is worse or more conspicuous than any of the other great confrontations of the past 50 years of tennis history.

Other rivalries aren’t diminished in comparison to Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova. No, that’s not the right point of emphasis. Chris and Martina merely took all the great qualities of the Open Era’s finest rivalries and multiplied them to a greater degree.

Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe

 

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