Great Rivals On Court, Better Friends Off Court

WASHINGTON, April 30, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Hall of Fame legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are two of the greatest players in women’s tennis history. They shared an iconic rivalry that lasted 80 matches between 1973 and 1988 – including 60 tournament finals – in which Navratilova owned a 43-37 edge. They met in Grand Slam finals a total of 14 times.

On Wednesday, the two great rivals on the court – and better friends off of it – shared an Instagram Live chat hosted by the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. Both are Florida residents and each has remained active in tennis as broadcast analysts, Evert for ESPN and Navratilova for Tennis Channel. It became evident from the outset of their conversation that both Evert, 65, and Navratilova, 64, immensely enjoy one another’s company.

Both in laughter and tears, they opened up to each other – even made fun of each other’s on-court appearances through the years. While each showered one another with plenty of acknowledgements, they also lightheartedly debated about who was the more likable player in the eyes of tennis fans as well as how fitness and racquet technology (going from wood to graphite) changed their games.

Both Evert and Navratilova left space for one another to lob an occasional  joke over the net. After all, they’ve had plenty of time – nearly 50 years – to bond together. There’s no secrets between these two dear friends. Whether playing Boggle and backgammon during rain delays in locker rooms around the world or sharing seats together as past champions in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, there’s always been a genuine sense of camaraderie among the two legends.

During their 75-minute conversation, Evert and Navratilova covered a lot of shared history:

• They talked about the first time they played against each other – it was 1973 at the Virginia Slims of Akron (Ohio) on carpet, won by Evert, 7-6 (5-4), 6-3. The older Evert saw in the younger Navratilova a star in the making, who had the athleticism and talent to beat her. She knew that Navratilova at her best was better than she was.

“That was the first time I had seen you play,” Evert recalled about her first meeting against Navratilova 47 years ago. “My impression was, ‘I was blown away.’

“I had never seen such a big topspin forehand; I had never seen such a great lefty serve that got me off the court on that backhand side.”

As Navratilova exclaimed, “Of course, I remember that match. My goal was to make sure you remember my name! It wasn’t to win the match – I didn’t think I could – but I thought I could hold my own. I wasn’t sure, but you never know.”

Evert exclaimed: “After that, I played you 79 times more!”

• Navratilova spoke poignantly and revealing about her defection from communist Czechoslovakia to the United States during the 1975 US Open. She was shy – a closeted lesbian teenager – just 18 years old. “I’m Top Four in the world and the Czech federation approaches me just before the tournament and says, ‘You’re too Americanized; we’re not going to let you play the US Open. You socialize too much with Billie Jean (King) and Rosie (Casals) and Chris,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m Top Four in the world.’ Eventually, Jan Kodes (one of the top Czech men’s players) convinced them to let me out of the country. They let me go. 

“I knew the federation was going to control whether they let me play tennis or not and when I was going to play. I was not my own boss. Soon, I realized I couldn’t be myself and play tennis the way I wanted to and still stay in the country.” 

Navratilova told her father, who supported her decision before she left for the U.S. However, she said, he told her not to tell her mother and “‘don’t come back even if we tell you to,’” she remembers him telling her.

She continues the story: “I waited until I was out of the tournament – I lost to you in the semifinals – and went to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) in Manhattan and filed for the asylum. The funniest part about it was they told us to come in late at night so that nobody would know and also to keep it quiet. So, I came in a 6:30 p.m. and was done at 9 p.m., filled out a lot of paperwork. I told them I was not a communist, not a spy, and that I wanted to play tennis and live in a free country, which was America. 

“The next morning, the phone rings at 8 a.m. and Hana Mandlikova’s mom is on the phone and asks me ‘Why did you do it?’ I said, ‘Why did I do what?’ ‘Why did you do it?’ My god, she knows. ‘How did you know?’ She said, ‘it’s in The Washington Post!’ This is before the internet, this is before cell phones. So, it was in The Washington Post that I had sought political asylum. All hell broke loose. I did a press conference at Forest Hills, then I went into hiding. American authorities were afraid that the Czechs wanted to kidnap me. It was a mess.”

Looking back, Navratilova reflected, “I knew when I left I might not be able to come back or see my family, again. That was the hard part. It was a one-way ticket.” 

Eventually, Navratilova was reunited with her family when they emigrated to the United States.

“You had so much courage at such a young age,” Evert said. “To leave your family and show how much passion you had for playing tennis. Your dream was not only freedom but also to be No. 1. You’ve achieved both of them.”

• Navratilova also addressed her return to Czechoslovakia as a member of the U.S. Fed Cup team in 1986 as seen through her eyes, which welled up as she recollected what it meant to go home and see her ailing grandmother for the first time in more than a decade. “It was so bittersweet,” she remembered.

Although the communist regime made her visit to Prague for Fed Cup awkward and, at times, uncomfortable – going so far as to refuse to announce her name her during pre-match introductions. “They couldn’t hold the Fed Cup unless they let us in, unless they let me in,” Navratilova recalled. “It transcended tennis, it transcended sport. Politically, it was a big statement.”

Evert called the Fed Cup experience “the most profound moment of my tennis career. … It was just an honor to be part of that, and be a witness to the emotional journey that you had.” Navratilova thanked Evert. The look on both of their faces was genuine.

Not all was bleak in Czechoslovakia, though, as Navratilova found joy in sharing her hometown of Revnice with her Fed Cup teammates. (She became a U.S. citizen in 1981.) The U.S. team also included future Hall of Famer Pam Shriver, her longtime doubles partner, and Zina Garrison. “We went to my hometown, I showed you everything,” Navratilova reminisced with Evert. “Some of my favorite photos of my life are with you and Pam and my dad and my mom, walking around Revnice.”

The United States beat Czechoslovakia, which featured future Hall of Fame members Hana Mandlikova and Helena Sukova, 3-0, in the final. Navratilova received tremendous applause from the Prague crowd despite the lack of official recognition. “We were touching the trophy, almost all of us in tears, and I can’t tell you how honored I feel to have been a part of that,” Evert expressed, caught up in the moment.

“It would not have been the same without you,” Navratilova replied, chocked with emotion. “We were able to pull for each other and be there together. It probably solidified our friendship, when you look back.”