Rivalries have defined the history of tennis. The most intriguing matchups have contrasted many playing styles and personalities: Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert; Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, and both players separately vs. Novak Djokovic; Pete Sampras vs. Andra Aggasi; Serena Williams and her sister, Venus; John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors, and both vs. Bjorn Borg; Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs. These on-court rivalries are some of the most prolific in all of modern sports history. The friendship between Evert and Navratilova shows that two close friends can love each other differently than even the world might expect.
Fire and Ice: Evert and Navratilova
The tagline ‘Fire and Ice’ is often used for the relationship between tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
Evert was known for being stone-faced and calculating. “My dad told me at a very young age, ‘Don’t let your opponent see how you’re feeling if you’re losing because they’ll use it to their advantage,'” Chris says.
Navratilova, on the other hand, openly wore her emotions on her sleeve. “I couldn’t keep it inside, but nobody ever told me that I should,” Martina says. “So I was pretty much on my own, at least from the neck up.”
From 1973 to 1988, the two megastars faced each other in tournament play 80 times. No less than 61 of their matches were in a tournament finale, including 14 Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open). Navratilova dominated those Grand Slam final matches 10-4, but their head-to-head record was a lot closer at 43-37 in favor of Navratilova. Despite this intense rivalry, Martina and Chris have maintained a close relationship off the court that felt almost impossible.
Like my other posts in this subset on friendships in sports, the relationships between Magic and Bird, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and Jesse Owens and Luz Long also included stark differences in their backgrounds and personalities. In each case, the close friendships developed out of a love for each other that was different than initially expected.
An All-American Girl
Chrissy Evert burst onto the tennis scene in 1971 as a fresh-faced teenager in a ponytail and ribbons. She played tennis hard but was still very feminine. She became the No. 1 ranked under-14 girl in the United States.
Evert won the national 16-and-under championship and made her Grand Slam tournament debut at age 16 at the 1971 US Open. In 1973, Evert was the runner-up at the French Open and the Wimbledon. A year later she won both those events and went on a then-record 55-consecutive-match winning streak, which included 8 other tournament wins. She ended the year with a 100–7 match record, winning 16 tournaments including two Grand Slams.
Evert played a reduced schedule in 1989 and retired from the professional tour after the US Open. She amassed 18 Grand Slam singles titles (at the time, an Open Era record, male or female), won 157 singles titles (at the time, the record for male or female), and 32 doubles titles. In her 303 tournaments played, Evert reached 229 finals with a win–loss record of 157–72 (68.6%) and 273 semifinals with a win–loss record of (90.1%).
Today, Chris Evert owns the Evert Tennis Academy with her brother, John in Florida. She helps coach a local high school tennis team and is the publisher of Tennis magazine. Chris has been an ESPN tennis commentator for Grand Slam tournaments and launched a line of tennis and active apparel.
The Muscular Czech
In striking contrast to Chris’s image as America’s sweetheart, Martina Navratilova was born in communist Czechoslovakia. She was a woman of muscles and bravery. At the height of the Cold War in 1975, Martina famously left the grounds of the U.S. Open and announced she was defecting to the United States. “I didn’t get enough opportunities to play as much tennis as I wanted,” Martina says.
Navratilova won her first professional singles title in 1974 at the age of 17. She was the runner-up at two major singles tournaments in 1975; the Australian Open and the French Open. She won her first major singles title at Wimbledon in 1978, where she defeated Chris Evert in three sets and captured the world’s No. 1 ranking. Navratilova successfully defended her Wimbledon title in 1979, again beating Evert in the final in straight sets.
During her career, Navratilova won 167 singles titles (more than any other player in the open era) and 177 doubles titles. She won 18 major singles titles: 9 at Wimbledon, 4 at the US Open, 4 at the Australian Open, and 2 at the French Open. Her overall record in 67 major singles events was 306–49. She is the only player to have won at least one tour event for 21 consecutive years and won the singles and doubles at the same event a record 84 times. Her career singles match win total of 1,442 is the most during the open era.
Love Off the Court
Chris Evert made headlines for her moves off the court with an engagement to tennis star, Jimmy Connors the same year they both won Wimbledon. Their fairy-tale love match did not last though, and Chris was linked to movie stars and other tennis stars. In 1979, she married the British tennis player, John Lloyd and changed her name to Chris Evert Lloyd before divorcing him in 1987. She then married downhill skier, Andy Mill in 1988, after they were introduced by Martina. In 2006, Evert and Mill divorced and she married her third husband, Australian golfer, Greg Norman but they too divorced in 2009.
Like Chris, Martina’s personal life was also under a microscope. She was one of the first openly gay athletes. Martina initially revealed her sexual relationship with Rita Mae Brown, and then American basketball player, Nancy Lieberman. From 1984 to 1991, Martina had a long-term relationship with American author, Judy Nelson, but split in 1991 which led to a nasty palimony lawsuit. In 2014, she married her long-time girlfriend Julia Lemigova, a former Miss USSR.
Martina remains involved with various charities that benefit animal rights, underprivileged children, and gay rights. In 2021, she became a leader of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, formed in response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order that mandates blanket inclusion for all trans women athletes, whose goal is protecting the girls’ and women’s competitive categories, while crafting accommodations for trans athletes into sport wherever possible. Chris Evert also supports the new Women’s Sports Policy Working Group.
An Unmatched Friendship
In a 2010 film in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series titled Unmatched, the pair spoke of their years of friendship and about times of staying at each others’ homes. The two legends admitted that they often call each other in the middle of the night to talk. “We were such opposites that it enabled us to get closer. She has my back; I have hers. I think that people forget we were left alone in the locker room every Sunday after we played final matches, and one of us would be crying and the other would be comforting- nobody saw that.” These close friends also saw love differently. Evert said, “When my first marriage was ending, she invited me to Aspen and taught me how to ski. Not many people who are Number 1 & 2 competitors would do that.” They learned that love can bring good friends closer together.
Chris’ view of Martina changed from up-and-coming danger to becoming her close pal. “Martina is definitely one of my closest friends right now. We have no competition. There’s no tension in our relationship whatsoever. It’s a freeing kind of a feeling.”
“I can really enjoy her and her personality now and she can really enjoy me.” “My sister passed away in February, and Martina was there the whole day. She was at the funeral. She was there for the burial. She was at the house for food and stayed until 10 p.m. She and Pam Shriver were the only two players there,” Evert said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Close Friends Love Differently
In January 2022, Chris Evert was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January 2022 and underwent a preventive hysterectomy. Navratilova was quick to lend her support. As a 2010 breast cancer survivor, she told her former tennis court rival, “We are all with you and behind you Chrissie, you are a true champion and I have no doubt you will conquer this nasty opponent with nary a sweat! Xoxox”
According to this ESPN post, the creators of the documentary on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova said “The intention was literally like ‘Thelma & Louise.’ They go away for a weekend, they talk about the good old days, and after watching it, you feel like, ‘God, I wish I had a friend like that.’ It’s friendship in the context of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports.”
The friendship between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova shows how close friends love differently by supporting each other through disappointing losses, divorce, and even serious health issues.
The funny thing about friendship is that it can transcend genders. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova found a close emotional bond and love for each other, despite their differences both on and off the court. But many men have a hard time recognizing the importance of that same type of emotional bond. In many cases, that intimate bond and support will lead to a closer, intimate friendship with other guys because close friends learn to love differently.
Why is intimacy in friendship so much harder for men than it is for women? Is it because of our male fears of homosexual attraction? Is it a result of the cultural conditioning about competition and not showing any weakness?
Feel free to comment below and watch for my next post as I move from the friendships of sports to friendships in the world of entertainment.