Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert are, appropriately, holding court to discuss their hefty history at the All England Club as well as against each other. Navratilova, 67, sits on the left — which aligns nicely with her personal philosophy — wearing a stylish white blouse. Evert, 69, is sporting a red dress.

It’s been 50 years since Evert won the first of her three titles at Wimbledon.

“I don’t remember anything about it,” Evert said, smiling.

But of course she did.

She was 19 years old and coming off her first major title at Roland Garros in the spring of 1974. Her steady baseline game was perfect for clay, but grass with its low, sometimes erratic bounces was more of a challenge. After losing to Billie Jean King earlier that year in New York, Evert won 20 straight matches going into the French Open and arrived at the All England Club with a 27-match win streak.

“I remember that that year I should never have won Wimbledon because I was in the same tournament as Billie Jean King, who I hadn’t beaten on grass yet, and Evonne Goolagong, who had my number on grass,” Evert said. “Lucky for me Olga Morozova beat Billie Jean King and Kerry Reid beat Evonne Goolagong.”

But before that happened, Evert was lucky to escape the first round, when Wimbledon was a 64-player draw. She found herself in a battle with Lesley Hunt of Australia and saw the match suspended with the score 8-6, 5-7, 9-9.

Engaged at the time to men’s star Jimmy Connors, Evert watched the Wimbledon Match of the Day on television — her uncompleted match against Hunt.

“What should I do?” she asked Connors.

“Go to the net on her backhand,” he replied.

“But I don’t go to the net,” Evert said.

“Go to the net on her backhand,” Connors said. “Every time she comes into the net, she wins the point. She has a slice backhand, she’s not going to pass you.”

The next day Evert went to the net three times in the first game. First time ever. Hunt dumped a backhand into the net, then Evert cracked two easy volleys and went on to win the match 11-9 in the third.

Columbia’s Isabel Fernandez De Soto went quickly, 6-1, 6-1, in the second. Straight-set wins over Mona Guerrant and Helga Masthoff landed her in the semifinals.

“I played Kerry Reid in the semis and I had never lost to her,” Evert said. “I played Olga Morozova in the finals, and I had never lost to her.”

And she didn’t this time, either, scoring a 6-0, 6-4 victory for her second straight major title.

“Martina and I often talk about were there Wimbledons you should have won that you didn’t win, vice versa,” Evert said. “That was one that I had no right winning.”

Shared secrets

Last week, when a member of the media asked what surprised them when they really got to know each other, Navratilova’s eyes gleam.

“For me,” she said, “Chris seemed so prim and proper. But then she has a glass of wine, she’s a different person. She tells the dirtiest jokes. Nobody knows. I still remember some of them.”

Evert, cover blown, says, “Great, great. I think Martina in the beginning was …”

“Clueless,” Navratilova interjects, drawing laughter.

“Very opinionated, very controversial,” Evert continued. “She just was ready to attack any kind of an issue. She wore her heart on her sleeve. I find as she gets older, she’s more protective.”

Navratilova smiles and says, “You’re the other way around. You were much more private then. Now you’re much more an open book. With our cancer, I was in a hole, I didn’t want the world to see anything. I didn’t want to see myself in the mirror, so I certainly didn’t want anyone else to see me.

“You were much more public about your treatment and everything else. It’s funny. But we end up in the same place.”

In so many ways.

More than a half-century after they played for the first time in Akron, Ohio, they are rivals-turned-friends, like an old vaudeville team with exquisite comic timing. The two were on hand to talk about an upcoming documentary examining their complicated relationship, and it was the highlight of Wimbledon’s pre-tournament press conferences.

It’s an unlikely chemistry: A child from Czechoslovakia, where a communist regime eventually prompted her to defect and a girl from sunny south Florida, daughter of an eminent tennis coach. They both went on to win 18 Grand Slam singles titles — with games that couldn’t have been more different.

For a period of a dozen years, from 1975 to 1987, one of them held the WTA Tour’s No.1 ranking for all but 23 weeks. Their wit, wisdom, their warmth hasn’t been dulled by multiple bouts with cancer. In fact, those qualities have been enhanced.

“She’s a nicer person than I am,” Evert said. “Let’s just get that out there.”

Said Navratilova, “I don’t know about that. We have our moments.

A special friendship

They’re both working for television here, Evert for ESPN, Navratilova for Tennis Channel and the British Broadcasting Corporation. They’re awed by the advances in women’s tennis from back in their day, but typically deflect any credit they might deserve and continue to push for more.

“It’s thrilling to see the attention and the money that everybody is making now — it could be better,” Navratilova said. “At least we have equal prize money at all the majors. I think women’s tennis was kind of at the forefront of women realizing they can ask for more and feel that they’re worth it.

“It’s amazing, the evolution … And it’s nice to be a part of it. We were a big chunk of it, and it feels pretty cool.”

Added Evert, “Billie Jean King, you got to give her. … She started this revolution of women athletes, women tennis players. Martina and I, we were the next generation. We were very involved with the Women’s Tennis Association. We were both president.

“I think our rivalry helped a lot, just the presentation of Martina and I as rivals. The matches that we played. I think that attracted even more eyeballs to the TV, viewers.”

The documentary will feature vintage footage, combined with glimpses of their lives today. Why now?

“Because,” Navratilova said, smiling, “we’re getting old.”

Navratilova, who has been battling breast and throat cancer can empathize with Evert, who has survived two bouts with ovarian cancer.

“To have two competitors at the top of their game, two champions competing against each other …” Evert said. “We’re going one on one. To be competing like that, to come out kind of with a really special friendship is one thing.

“But I think also the fact that we both had cancer, just we have the ability and the opportunity to get some messages, very important life messages, health messages, out there, like genetic testing. Get your testing, take care of all of your medical appointments that you have.”

Navratilova interjected, “I’m not missing that mammogram.”

Said Evert: “She has been such a support for me. Coming over to my house, cooking me soup, cooking me pasta, really taking care of me, calling me, making sure I’m OK. If I’m going to go through the trenches, there’s nobody I’d pick more than Martina.”


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