Martina Navratilova, Australian Open 1981

1981: First Australian Open title for Martina Navratilova

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard:

“The first three majors of 1981 had been divided among Hana Mandlikova, Evert and Austin. Navratilova‘s Grand Slam title drought, meanwhile, had extended to twenty-eight months.

Yet as Navratilova and Evert walked out onto the court at Kooyong Stadium in Melbourne for the 1981 Australian Open final, Evert felt that “Martina had the momentum” – an odd remark considering that Evert hadn’t dropped a set. But Evert noticed that Navratilova had begun to display a fiercer edge, a more resilient confidence during her tournament run.

At times Evert felt sure she had struck unreachable shots – “Against anyone else they would’ve been winners” Evert said – only to see Martina somehow run down the ball or snare it at full stretch and crack back a volley winner.
“She would be on top of the net so quickly I would have to hit a perfect passing shot”, Evert said.
aEvert was magnificently up to the challenge. In the brillantly played first set, Evert and Navratilova were even at 5-5, then 6-6, then 4-all in the tiebreaker before Evert captured three set points to win it. Evert inched away to a 4-3 lead in the second set too. But Navratilova produced her best game of the match to hold at 4-all. Then Navratilova allowed only two points in the next two games, and the seesawing match was level at a set apiece.

Navratilova, seemingly exhilarated by her comeback, bolted off to a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to see something stir in Evert that was beyond fear and closer to self-loathing. It was that same stomach-turning thought that often drove Evert: the galling idea of having to make nice at the net with her overjoyed opponent after a loss. In that instant, the details faded and Evert quit thinking about how Navratilova’s net-smothering play had demanded almost impossible precision from her. Like Navratilova, Evert began playing on row emotion now.
“At that point you are so mad, you just find yourself going for your shots more subbornly”, Evert said. “My shots were hitting the lines. I was connecting with the ball as well as I could have.”

For the next six or seven games, she and Navratilova were like two fighters deep into a fifteen-round bout, weary but willing. Evert stormed back to 5-all. The tension was thick. Each rally had now become a test of nerve. Yet again, Evert didn’t feel safe. When Evert searched Navratilova’s body language or eyes right then for any familiar hint of tightness, none was there.

In this, their forty-fourth confrontation, Navratilova was suddenly an opponent Evert did not quite know. “Martina didn’t panic”, Evert said.
Evert was serving now at 5-5. With the score knotted at 30-all, Evert blasted a forehand long to give Navratilova a potentially decisive break point. Hoping to surprise Navratilova, Evert rushed the net first – only to end up in an eyeball-to-eyeball exhange of volleys that Navratilova won.

For the third time now, Navratilova began a new game serving for the match. Evert struck one last passing shot – long – and her shoulders sagged.

Navratilova had won the Australian Open 6-7 6-4 7-5. Her career total of major titles had finally ticked up to three.”

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