1985 French Open final: Chris Evert defeats Martina Navratilova

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard

“For the thirteenth time, Evert and Navratilova were about to meet for a Grand Slam title. For all but a brief portion of their rivalry, either Evert or Navratilova had been number one in the world. But as they began unzipping their racket bags to prepare to play, Navratilova remained the prohibitive favorite. Evert had not beaten Navratilova in a major in two and a half years – not even at the French Open, a tournament that Evert once ruled as imperiously as Navratilova now did the grass courts of Wimbledon.”

“Over the next three hours, everything that their rivalry had ever revealed about Navratilova and Evert as athletes, as people, as friends, was about to be reprised on the floor of Roland Garros.
Even on television, their grunts of exertion were audible. So were the sandpapery sounds their sneakers made as they slid into their shots on the clay. When it was through, Navratilova came around to Evert’s side of the net to sling an arm around her. And Evert held on to Navratilova’s hand just an instant longer when their arm-in-arm walk off the court ended at the umpire’s chair, then turned away so Navratilova couldn’t see her shoving away a few tears.

The match they play was dazzling – not for its perfection, necessarily, but more for the stomach-gnawing tension, and the stirring determination they displayed. Later, piercing the details back together was hard for both of them. The emotions were that lingered. There had been so many gasp-inducing shots and disasters avoided by each of them, so many narrow escapes and cliffhanger moments in which one of them gouged out a service break or won a couple of games in a row, and then, as if disoriented by the sudden lightness and shedding of pressure, the distracting thought of victory, each of them would give back a game or two. They’d inexplicably plow a makeable shot into the net, and stand there, staring, as if to say, ‘How in the world did I do that?’
And the drama would begin all over again…

Navratilova would shriek at her mistakes now and then as if she wanted to shatter every champagne flute on the grounds of Roland Garros. Once or twice Evert directed a burning stare at a linesman whom she suspected of missing a close call. She kicked the ball into the net once when it disobeyed her. Her own errors sent her eyebrows slamming down hard in irritation. Then the right side of her mouth would tick up ever so slightly into a scowl.

Navratilova was, as usual, breathtaking. The way her racket finished high above her shoulder on some strokes, she looked like a musketeer slicing up the air. Evert, as always, seemed lost in concentration, her movements precise, her timing pure, the path of her strokes perfectly grooved. She seized the first set from Navratilova, 6-3. She had Navratilova down 2-4, 15-40 in the second set too, then couldn’t apply the sleeper hold. Navratilova slithered free and held serve. Then she broke Evert’s serve. Evert served for match at 6-5 in the second, but again Navratilova pulled out the service break she absolutely had to have and forced a tiebreaker, which she also won to stay alive.
And the drama began all over again..

The last two games that Navratilova and Evert played were a blur of inspired shots, each more pressure-packed and spine-tingling than the last. Evert held for a 6-5 lead, but only after surviving a 0-40 deficit and four break points in the longest game of the match.
With Navratilova serving now at 5-6, Evert got to match point and lofted a tantalizing lob over Navratilova’s head, and Navratilova turned and gave chase, only to see the ball parachute down just inches long.
Befitting all that happened in the 2h40 they had already played, the last point of the match was unforgettable. Navratilova sent a serve sizzling down the center line of the court, and Evert hit a backhand return. Navratilova answered with a forehand reply and Evert tried a crosscourt backhand. Navratilova slammed another forehand down the middle that pushed Evert a perilous six feet behind the baseline. When Evert hit back a short reply, Navratilova came rushing in to pounce on the ball.

Evert looked doomed – especially when Navratilova smashed a backhand toward the left corner of the court and took the net. But Evert not only made it to the ball, she lunged and jackknifed forwad, slid her feet into perfect position one last time, and somehow sent a two-fisted backhand winner from the left corner down the left alley on a low hard line. Navratilova’s head snapped around just in time to watch as the ball slammed down just in.

The final score was 6-3 6-7 7-5 for Evert. Navratilova hadn’t lost the match. She’d forced Evert to win it.

“We brought out the best in each other,” Navratilova said

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