It was probably the most socially significant sports rivalry of all time. Certainly it was among the purest, the most intimate and longest-running.
Over the course of 16 years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova faced each other over tennis nets around the world 80 times. From 1975 through 1986, they not only dominated women's tennis, they were women's tennis. Locked in a see-sawing battle for all the major titles, they commanded the post-Title IX spotlight not just for women's tennis but for women's athletics in general.
There had been women sports stars in the past — Billie Jean King had recently used the court as a sociopolitical proving ground, defeating the self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. But never like this, never two of them, seemingly perfectly matched, meeting and defeating each other game after game, year after year.
And they were so different. Pretty and petite, Evert dominated the baseline and quickly became America's sweetheart, despite her icy control. Navratilova was a big emotional Czech, whose personal story was as in-your-face as her game — at 18, she defected to the United States; six years later she came out.
That they would have an intense relationship is not surprising; that it would be an enduring friendship most certainly is.
"Unmatched," a documentary on ESPN as part of its ongoing anniversary "30 for 30" series, is a lovely and remarkable little film. Television specials chronicling the extraordinary feats of top athletes are a dime a dozen, but it is nearly impossible to find two other groundbreaking athletes who went head to head so many times and with equal amounts of ruthlessness and empathy.
Throw in the fact that both Evert and Navratilova are funny, warm and as comfortable in front of the camera as they are with each other and "Unmatched" becomes not just a rare window into the sports world but a fascinating conversation between two women who have as much hard-won wisdom between them as tennis titles. (The film is similar to Johnette Howard's 2006 book "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship.")
Although a bit emo-heavy in construct — we see the two in context of a girls' beach weekend, walking along the shoreline, swathed in sweaters and Natalie Merchant songs — the narrative is simple and straightforward. No doubt filmmakers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters and producer Hannah Storm provided their subjects with talking points, but the film follows a daylong conversation between the two athletes, in which they discuss their careers through the prism of their relationship. Evert remembers the first time she played the one-time chunky Czech outsider and thinking that once this girl lost some weight "we were all in trouble."
A tone of fond nostalgia casts a rosy glow over the proceedings, but neither woman shies away from discussing the difficulty of maintaining a relationship based on constant competition. Evert admits that she withdrew from the friendship when Navratilova began beating her. Navratilova too made a conscious decision, spurred on by basketball player Nancy Lieberman, to put the competition before the friendship, spending hours in the gym to develop a powerful physique that would overwhelm Evert.
But while Evert was battling with the psychology of suddenly losing, Navratilova was coping with an often hostile press. When she began winning a lot, she says, she was cast as the bad guy. "I'm playing the American girl next door," she says, "and here I was this big muscular lesbian from a communist country."
Although it would have been nice to see a bit more footage or to have the women's extraordinary athletic achievements given more play than factoids flashed across the screen, Lax and Stern Winters have made an admirable decision to keep their eyes on the prize — that their stars are so open and easy with each other. Watching "Unmatched", it was impossible not to compare it to "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals," another fascinating sports documentary, which debuted on HBO this spring.
Similar themes emerge — the unsentimental respect of equals, the gratitude of long-running worthy opponents and, perhaps most telling, the knowledge that of all the people in the world, it is the rival who can be counted on in times of crisis.
For those of us who came of age during the Navratilova and Evert years, and for those born later, "Unmatched" is a wonderful reminder of how one relationship can truly change the world. Long after the titles and cups and medals have been won, Evert and Navratilova are still teaching us how to be champions.