Bitter Rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors.

From a Washington Post story by Sally Jenkins headlined “”Bitter rivals. Beloved friends. Survivors.”:

There is an audible rhythm to a Grand Slam tennis tournament, a thwock-tock, tock-thwock of strokes, like beats per minute, that steadily grows fainter as the field diminishes. At first the locker room is a hive of 128 competitors, milling and chattering, but each day their numbers ebb, until just two people are left in that confrontational hush known as the final. For so many years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were almost invariably the last two, left alone in a room so empty yet intimate that they could practically hear what was inside the other’s chest. Thwock-tock.

They dressed side by side. They waited together, sometimes ate together and entered the arena together. Then they would play a match that seemed like a personal cross-examination, running each other headlong into emotional confessions, concessions. And afterward they would return to that small room of two, where they showered and changed, observing with sidelong glances the other’s triumphalism or tears, states beyond mere bare skin. No one else could possibly understand it.

Except for the other.

“She knew me better than I knew me,” Navratilova says.

They have known each other for 50 years now, outlasting most marriages. Aside from blood kin, Navratilova points out, “I’ve known Chris longer than anybody else in my life, and so it is for her.” Lately, they have never been closer — a fact they refuse to cheapen with sentimentality. “It’s been up and down, the friendship,” Evert says. At the ages of 68 and 66, respectively, Evert and Navratilova have found themselves more intertwined than ever, by an unwelcome factor. You want to meet an opponent who draws you nearer in mutual understanding? Try having cancer at the same time.

“It was like, are you kidding me?” Evert says.

The shape of the relationship is an hourglass. They first met as teenagers in 1973, became friends and then split apart as each rose to No. 1 in the world at the direct expense of the other. They contested 80 matches — 60 of them finals — riveting for their contrasts in tactics and temperament. After a 15-year rivalry, they somehow reached a perfect equipoise of 18 Grand Slam victories each.

On some slow or rainy day, when the tennis at Wimbledon is banging and artless as a metronome or suspended by weather, do yourself a favor. Call up highlights of Evert and Navratilova’s match at the 1981 U.S. Open. They are 26 and 24 years old, respectively, honed to fine edges. It’s as if they were purposely constructed to test each other — and to whip up intense reactions from their audiences, the adorable blond American middle-class heroine with the frictionless grace against the flurrying Eastern European with sculpted muscles who played like a sword fighter.

Evert played from a restrained conventional demeanor, with ribbons in her hair, earrings in her ears. Yet she was utterly new. Audiences had never seen anything quite like the compressed lethality of this two-fisted young woman, who knocked off the legendary Margaret Court at the age of just 15 in 1970. She was a squinteyed, firm-chinned executioner who delivered strokes like milled steel.

She had mystique. And she refused to be hemmed in. As she held the No. 1 ranking for five straight years, she reserved the right to court romantic danger with a bewildering array of famous men, not all of them suitable for a nice Catholic girl, from the surly Jimmy Connors to superstar actor Burt Reynolds — and to put them second to her career. Her composure cloaked one of the toughest minds in the annals of sport, and her .900 winning percentage remains virtually unrivaled in tennis history.

Navratilova was her inverse, a gustily emotional left-handed serve-and-volleyer who challenged every traditional definition of heroine with an edgy militancy. Her game had an acrobatic suppleness that was also entirely novel — never had a female athlete moved with such airborne ease. Or acted so honestly. Navratilova was as overtly political as Evert was popular. Her defection from communist Czechoslovakia in 1975 was an act of unimaginable bravery, and her struggle to win acceptance from Western crowds was compounded by her defiant inability to censor herself or mask her homosexuality. Advised to put a man in her box at Wimbledon, she refused. Once, when asked whether she was “openly” gay, she shot back, “As opposed to closedly?”

More prideful generations can’t comprehend how in the vanguard Navratilova was when she came out in 1981 or the price she paid in lost endorsements. The New York Times that year announced that homosexuality was “the most sensitive issue in the sports marketplace, more delicate than drugs, more controversial than violence.” Male sportswriters fixated on the veins in her arms. Newsweek veered out of its way to accuse her of “accentuating some lifestyle manifesto.” She repaid them all by becoming the first female athlete to win a million dollars in prize money in a single year.

Small wonder Evert and Navratilova’s matches seemed like such colossal encounters. As they competed, the TV cameras zeroed in on their faces and found mother-of-dragons expressions, a willingness to play to ashes. That too was new.

It once had been considered “unnatural” for a woman to contend with such unembarrassed intensity. As Evert’s own agent said in 1981, female sports stars were expected to be “ladylike” and not too “greedy” in their negotiations, while their male counterparts could win “every nickel and feel quite comfortable about it.” Not anymore. Evert and Navratilova had established their common right “to go to the ends of the earth, the absolute ends of the earth, to achieve something,” Evert says.

By the time Evert and Navratilova retired from singles play, in 1989 and 1994, respectively, they had reached a mutual understanding. Not only were they level with an equal number of major titles, but the rivalry was so transcendent, it had become a kind of joint accomplishment.

After their retirements, they followed strangely similar courses. They were neighbors in Aspen, Colo., and Florida, at times living just minutes from each other. Evert’s longtime base is Boca Raton, while Navratilova has a home in Miami Beach as well as a small farm just up the road in Evert’s birthplace of Fort Lauderdale, where she keeps a multitude of chickens. “She brings me eggs,” Evert says. Each eventually went into tennis broadcasting, which meant they continued to meet at Grand Slam fortnights. “Our lives are so parallel, it’s eerie when you think about it,” Navratilova says.

They became the kind of friends who talked and texted weekly, sometimes exchanging black-box confidences deep in the night. And who could tease each other with a mischief they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. On Navratilova’s 60th birthday, she received a Cartier box from Evert. Inside was a necklace with three rings of white gold, signifying the two and their long friendship. “I guess I’m kind of the guy in our relationship, giving her jewelry,” Evert cracks.

The parallels were funny, until they weren’t.

In January 2022, Evert learned that she had Stage 1C ovarian cancer. As Evert embarked on a grueling six cycles of chemotherapy, Navratilova pulled the Cartier necklace from her jewelry box and put it on, a talisman. “I wore it all the time when I wanted her to get well,” Navratilova says. For months, she never took it off.

Only one thing made her remove it: radiation. In December 2022, Navratilova received her own diagnosis: She had not one but two early-stage cancers, in her throat and breast.

“I finally had to take it off when I got zapped,” Navratilova says.

On a late spring day, Evert and Navratilova sat together in an elegant Miami hotel, both finally cancer-free at the end of long dual sieges. Evert was just a few weeks removed from her fourth surgery in 16 months, a reconstruction following a mastectomy she underwent in late January. Navratilova had just finished the last session of a scorching protocol of radiation and chemo, during which she lost 29 pounds. She toyed with a plate of gluten-free pasta, happy to be able to swallow without pain.

They were finally ready to look over their shoulders and tell some stories. New stories but also some old ones that felt fresh again or came with a new frankness.

Evert recalled the day she phoned Navratilova to tell her she had cancer.

“She was one of the very first people I told,” she says.

Wait a second.

Is Evert saying that the rival who dealt her the deepest professional cuts of her life, whose mere body language on the court once made her seethe, was among the very first people she wanted to talk to when she got cancer? It’s one thing to share a rich history and be neighbors and swap gifts and teasing, but they are those kinds of confidantes?

And is the same true for Navratilova, that Evert — whose mere existence meant that no matter how much she won, she could never really win, who at one point dominated her with an infuriating superciliousness — was among the first people she called when she got cancer? Is that what they are saying?

Indeed, it is.

“When I called her, it was a feeling of, like, coming home,” Evert says.
Hang on, you say.

Go back.

Guts and glory, together and apart

They met Feb. 25, 1973, in the player lounge of a Florida tour stop. Evert, 18, was playing backgammon with a tournament official at a table by a wall. Though she had been a top player for two years by then, she was by nature shy and felt isolated by her fame and the circumscribing stereotype that came with it. Sports Illustrated would paint her as a “composite of Sandra Dee, the Carpenters, and yes, apple pie,” which she dealt with by cultivating a clamped, sardonic purse of the mouth.

Evert glanced up and saw a new girl approaching, pale and plump as a dumpling, with a guileless face beneath a mop of hair. “Hi, Chris!” she recalls Navratilova blurting.

From the 16-year-old Navratilova’s point of view, it was Evert who spoke first, giving her a sweet murmured “Hi” and a small wave. Oh, my God, Chris Evert said hello to me, Navratilova thought. Navratilova recognized Evert from the pictures she pored over in World Tennis magazine, one of the few subscriptions she could get in her home village of Revnice, outside of Prague.

Let’s stipulate that the greetings were simultaneous, the reflexive reactions of two girls who were the antithetical of mean, more sensitive than their other competitors ever realized, “both always underestimated in our empathy,” as Navratilova says. And who had the mutual desire to break the “taboo” of competition, as Evert once called it, that inhibited so many girls.

Later in the tournament, Evert spotted Navratilova again. “Picture this,” Evert says. Navratilova was walking straight through the grounds in a one-piece bathing suit and flip flops, oblivious to stares at her crisscrossing tan lines. It was Navratilova’s first trip to the United States; she was granted an eight-week leave by the communist Czechoslovakian government to try her game against the Western elites’, and she was determined to luxuriate in it. She’s got guts, Evert thought.

Their first match a month later, in Akron, Ohio, on March 22, 1973, is crystal to them both a half-century later. Though Evert won in straight sets, Navratilova pushed her to 7-6 in the first. “Five-four in the tiebreaker,” Navratilova says instantly, as soon as it’s mentioned, bristling, “And I actually had a set point.”

Evert had never faced anything like it. The curving lefty serve caromed away from her, and so did the charging volleys. “She had weapons that I hadn’t seen in a young player — ever,” Evert says. Two things gave Evert relief: Navratilova’s lack of fitness — she had put on 20 pounds in four weeks on American pancakes — and her emotionalism. “She was almost crying on the court in the match, you know, just moaning,” Evert says. Nevertheless, Evert had never felt such a formidableness from a new opponent and never would again. “Overwhelming” is the word Evert searches for — and finds. “More than any player coming up in the last 40 years.”

To Navratilova, it was equally memorable, for the simple reason that she had nearly taken a set off Evert. “For me, that was unforgettable. But, yeah, I made an impression. … I was pretty confident that I would beat her one day. I just didn’t know how long it would take.”

Friendship was easy enough at first — so long as Evert was winning. She won 16 of their first 20 matches. In their first Grand Slam final, at the 1975 French Open, she smoked Navratilova 6-2, 6-1 in the second and third sets after casually sharing a lunch of roasted chicken with her.

Evert was so utterly regnant and aloof in those days she seemed to Navratilova like a castle with a moat. She had a forbidding self-containment, a stony demeanor that one competitor from the 1970s, Lesley Hunt, likened in Sports Illustrated to “playing a blank wall.”

Navratilova could not fathom how Evert cast such a huge projection with such an unprepossessing figure. “I was like, ‘Holy s—, how does she do it?’ ” Navratilova remembers. Evert stood just 5-foot-6 and weighed a slim-shouldered 125 pounds. But she had a superb economy of motion — and something else. One day Navratilova watched fascinated as Evert practiced against her younger sister Jeanne Evert, who also played on the tour. Both Everts had two-handed backhands, and they wore skirts with no pockets. Which meant that to hit a backhand, someone had to drop the ball she carried in her left hand and it would bounce distractingly around her feet. As Navratilova watched, she realized with growing amusement that Chris was engaged in a subtle contest of will.

“It was kind of a mental fight,” Navratilova recalls. “Who was going to hit the first ball? Because whoever didn’t hit first would have to drop their ball.” Chris never missed the chance to hit first. “It was a small thing, but it took a steely determination,” Navratilova says. “And she never missed.” It registered. By the end of the session Navratilova understood that Evert’s greatest weapon was “her brain.”

Navratilova herself was so mentally distractible that she would follow the flight of a bird across the stadium sky. Her thoughts and feelings seemed to blow straight through her, unfiltered. Evert could not help but be disarmed by this openhearted, unconstrained young woman who seemed hungry to experience … everything. Pancakes. Pool time. Freedom. Friendship. Fast cars.

Evert’s urge to befriend Navratilova won out over her reserve. Evert invited her to be her doubles partner and even took her on a double date, with Dean Martin Jr., son of the entertainer, and Desi Arnaz Jr., Martin’s actor friend and pop-band collaborator. The teen idols squired Evert and Navratilova to a drive-in movie.

Evert and Navratilova traveled together, practiced together, even brunched before they met in finals. “I was a tough nut to crack,” Evert observes. “But she was so innocent and almost vulnerable when she was young, I trusted being safe with her.”

Over dinners and glasses of wine, Navratilova discovered the mutinous side of Evert, which expressed itself with an unsuspected saltiness. Evert delighted in telling Navratilova scandalously dirty jokes. The outward banality of the girl hurling herself off the pedestal compounded Navratilova’s outbursts of laughter. “The curtain would fall,” Navratilova says, “and the funny Chris came out. The filter was gone. The walls were gone. And that’s when I realized she just kept the cards close to her chest. But she was soooo mischievous underneath it all.”

By 1976, however, Navratilova began to score more victories over Evert. In that year’s Wimbledon semifinals, it was all Evert could do to hold her off, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. “I was nipping at her heels,” Navratilova says. “I was becoming a threat.”

Which is when all the trouble started and they entered the narrowest part of the hourglass. Evert believed she had gotten too close to Navratilova. She broke up their doubles partnership. “She ditched me,” Navratilova says.

Evert did it politely, telling Navratilova she would have to find another partner because she wanted to focus on her singles. But it stung. And Navratilova knew the real reason. “Chris, by her own admission, could only be close friends with people who never had a chance of beating her,” Navratilova says.

Evert hated to play someone she cared about — hated it. “I thought, ‘God, I can’t be emotional towards these people,’ ” Evert says now. “… It was easier not to even know them.”

Evert’s on-court demeanor was a facade, developed to please her father and coach, Jimmy Evert, a renowned teaching pro at the public Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. Jimmy was a man of such rigor and unbending rectitude that he refused to raise his $6 hourly fee for lessons because of his daughter’s success. But he was not right about everything. He demanded that Chris commit to tennis to the exclusion of all else — friends were incompatible with rivals, he told her. “I was raised in a house that did not encourage relationships,” she says. And he brooked no dissent. “It was a fearful sort of upbringing,” she adds. The result was a young woman who beneath her stoicism roiled with insecurity and anxiety.

Navratilova observes that, in its way, Evert’s childhood was as stifling as her own had been in Czechoslovakia. “We are much more the same than different, really,” she says. “So much of it was imposed on both of us, one way or the other, with her Catholic, proper girl upbringing and me being suppressed by communism.”

Evert convinced herself that she and Navratilova had become too familiar with each other and that it cost her an edge.

So “I separated myself from her,” Evert says.

It was bad timing for Navratilova, who was feeling doubly cut off. A year earlier, she had defected. Czech authorities had increasingly expressed the ominous sentiment that Navratilova was getting too Americanized — partly thanks to her budding friendship with Evert — and she feared they were about to choke off her career.

Navratilova struggled with homesickness; concern for her family, whom she would not see for almost five years; mastering a new language (she studied English by watching “I Love Lucy” reruns); and the stresses of hiding her homosexuality. As she related in her autobiography, by the time Evert ditched her at the U.S. Open, “I was a walking candidate for a nervous breakdown.” She lost in the opening round to a grossly inferior player, Janet Newberry, and dissolved into sobs on national television.

But Navratilova emerged from the catharsis a firmer character. She watched with a mounting, gnawing dissatisfaction as Evert dominated the Grand Slams, challenged only by Evonne Goolagong. At one point, Navratilova heard Evert talk in an interview about how her rivalry with Goolagong was “defining” her.

Navratilova bridled at the statement. “I remember thinking, what about me?” Navratilova recalls.

When it finally came, Navratilova’s breakthrough — and the role reversal — was breath-snatching. By 1981 she had developed some armor. Training with Nancy Lieberman, the former basketball great, she dropped her body fat to 8 percent. Lieberman told her she had to get “mean” about Evert and showed what she meant by being intentionally rude to Evert in player lounges. Evert would start to greet them, and Lieberman would turn her back or say frostily, “Are you talking to me?” It quietly infuriated Evert. “They weren’t very nice to me,” Evert says. “I mean, Nancy taught her to hate me.”

From 1982 to 1984, it was Navratilova’s turn to be cold. She reached 10 Grand Slam finals — and won eight of them. In that stretch, she beat Evert 14 straight times, with an abbreviating serve-and-volley power that seemed almost dismissive. “She was in the way of me getting to No. 1,” Navratilova says. “So I kind of created that distance. She was my carrot when I was training. You know, I would imagine beating Chris. She became the villain, even though she really wasn’t.”

Evert struggled not to lose heart, especially when Navratilova beat her by 6-1, 6-3 in the 1983 U.S. Open. “It was not a good feeling to know that I wasn’t even in the game,” Evert says. About to turn 30, she had fallen behind in a variety of ways, from her fitness to the fact that Navratilova was using a graphite racket while she still used wood. She was also trying to sort her personal life and separated from her husband of five years, British player John Lloyd.

Navratilova paraded her triumph by whipping around in a white Rolls-Royce convertible, one of six cars in her garage. She won so much that by 1984 it made her generous again. She now trained with a more amiable tennis tactician named Mike Estep, and her partner, Judy Nelson, a former Texas beauty contestant, liked Evert and worked to repair the relationship. At Wimbledon that July, after beating Evert, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, to even their all-time match record at 30-30, Navratilova was sensitive to Evert’s quiet devastation. Navratilova said sweetly into the victor’s microphone, “I wish we could just quit right now and never play each other again because it’s not right for one of us to say we’re better.”

“So does that mean she’s retiring now?” Evert said in a news conference afterward, wisecrackery intact.

Navratilova’s dominance of Evert that summer made her more of an antiheroine than she had ever been — and resulted in one of the most wounding days of her career. On the afternoon of the 1984 U.S. Open final, they had an interminably tense wait as Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl engaged in a five-set men’s semifinal that went to two tiebreakers and lasted nearly four hours. There was nothing to do but stare into space or chat. Evert became starving. Navratilova, who had a bagel, split it and handed her half.

When they finally took the court, they needed a while to find their form — and then they suddenly went into full classic mode. When Evert began to lace the court with passing shots as if she was running out clotheslines, taking the opening set 6-4, the crowd leaped to its feet and roared like jet engines.

But when Navratilova took the second set 6-4, there came a smattering of boos. As Navratilova turned the match in her favor, some grew surly. They began to applaud her errors and cheered when she double-faulted. When she won it with a knifing volley, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, there was a barely polite ovation.

Navratilova was unstrung by the rejection. As Estep gave her a congratulatory hug, she burst into tears in his arms. “Why were they so against me?” she asked Estep. The answer: Because she had won too much against Evert. It was Navratilova’s sixth straight Grand Slam victory — and the most ambivalent feeling she ever had. She buried her head in a towel, shoulders quivering.

One person knew how Navratilova felt that day: Evert. For years she had lived with the “ice maiden” label and frigidness from crowds that considered her too impassive. Goolagong, the wispy, ethereal Australian, had always been more favored by fans, to the point that on one occasion Evert came back into the locker room after a loss and flung her rackets to the floor and spat bitterly, “Now I hope they’re happy.”

Evert and Navratilova wanted to be appreciated for who they were. But it felt impossible with all the media caricatures of them as princesses, robots, “Chris America” vs. the foreigner, the delicate sweetheart vs. the bulging lesbian. “All that stuff hurt,” Navratilova says.

Evert refused to play into any of the tropes that day — or any other day. For which Navratilova felt deeply grateful. “Chris never did anything to make it worse, you know?” Navratilova says.

At some point in the wake of that difficult year, they struck a private agreement: They would not respond to the stereotypes or any egging on from the media or their own audiences. If either had a question about something, she would speak directly to the other, “so that we knew where we stand,” Navratilova says.

Early in 1985, Evert beat Navratilova for the first time in over two years, at the Virginia Slims of Florida. “Nobody beats Chris Evert 15 times in a row,” she deadpanned.

The renewal set up another masterpiece, the 1985 French Open final. The match is a fascinating revisit — and reveal. After they took the court, what’s striking is how they had borrowed from each other, forced the other to adapt. It’s Navratilova who wins some of the longest baseline rallies and Evert who presses the net first on some points. Navratilova has fully appropriated imperiousness, blond and bejeweled, diamonds in her ears, gold bracelets and rings. Evert is the one who is stripped down — her hair is shorn short, and there is nothing on her wrist but a sweatband. It’s clear she had gone back to work, developed ropes of muscle in her arms and stealthily broadened her game over those two seasons of losses.

Right hand against left, they went at each other like flashing sabers.

As their rallies wore on, they played with apparent curiosity. “There had been so many matches. How do you surprise one another?” Navratilova says. “How do you find something new or different? When you know everything already?” Sometimes, as the ball flew, one of them would just nod before it landed and acknowledge that it was too good with a “Yep.”

Evert would never be better; she found ways to wrong-foot the charging, slashing Navratilova. She always had been irritated by the shoulder swagger Navratilova could show after a great point, but she was fully capable of her own show of supremacy, and she showed it here, with the head tossing of an empress and a mincy little walk that could only be called a sashay.

A point-blank volley exchange at the net, won by Evert, had broadcaster Bud Collins screaming: “OHHHHHH! Eyeball to eyeball!” On one exchange, the force of Evert’s shot knocked the racket from Navratilova’s hand and sent her sprawling to the red clay. On match point, she lured Navratilova to the net with a short forehand, then pivoted to deliver an unfurling backhand winner up the line past a diving Navratilova, through an opening as narrow as one of her old hair ribbons. And it was over. Evert had won, 6-3, 6-7 (7-4), 7-5.

The embrace at the net is one of their enduringly favorite pictures. They threw their arms over each other’s shoulders, mutually exhausted yet beaming over the quality of the tennis they had just played. “You can’t tell who won,” Navratilova says.

It seemed as if they no longer were playing against each other so much as with each other. And that’s how it stayed. From then on, their locker room atmosphere became more than just companionable. It was … consoling. Someone would win and someone would lose, and the loser would sit on a bench, head dangling, and the other, unable to look away, would drift over and sit down. Sometimes, hours afterward, one of them would open her tennis bag and find a sweet note in it.

“We were the last two left standing,” Evert says. “… I saw her at her highest and at her lowest. And I think because we saw each other that way, the vulnerable part, that’s another level of friendship.”

In 1986, Navratilova was scheduled to return to Czechoslovakia for the first time since her defection to play a match for the U.S. Federation Cup team. “Will you come?” she asked Evert. “I don’t know how they’ll treat me.” Evert was nursing a knee injury, but she went. Navratilova was overjoyed to be teammates for a change. “We could be happy at the same time for once,” she says. Evert was rewarded with an extraordinary experience: She watched her friend get a standing ovation from crowds standing three deep while Czech officials stared at their shoes.

At Evert’s final Wimbledon in 1989, one more remarkable scene played out between them. Evert by then was flagging, her intensity worn thin. In the quarterfinals she was in danger of an undignified loss to unseeded, 87th-ranked Laura Golarsa. She trailed 5-2 in the third set, just two points from defeat. This isn’t how I want to go out, she thought grimly. Navratilova, watching on TV in the player lounge, stood up and dashed out to courtside. She took a seat in the grandstand.

“Come on, Chrissie!” Navratilova’s voice rang out.

Evert had just a moment to feel moved. Touched. Just then Golarsa delivered a volley. On a dead run, Evert chased it. Stretched out, pulled nearly into the stands, her backhand fully extended, Evert drove a screaming pass down the alley that curled around the net post and checked the opposite corner, a clean winner. Navratilova shrieked with the thrill of it like a little girl. Evert swept the rest of the set and won it 7-5, arguably the most astonishing comeback of her life.

“She’s got my back,” Evert says now. “I’ve got hers.”

‘Cancer makes you feel alone’

Friendship is arguably the most wholly voluntary relationship. It reflects a mutual decision to keep pasting something back together, no matter how far it gets pulled apart, even when there is no obligatory reason, no justice-of-the-peace vow or chromosomal tie.

Evert and Navratilova just kept finding reasons to hang on to the relationship. To the point that they became hilariously entangled in each other’s personal affairs. It’s a fact that Navratilova set up Evert with the man who remains the most important one in her life, Andy Mill. Toward the close of Evert’s playing career, Navratilova knew Evert was lonely and depressed after her divorce from Lloyd, which caused Jimmy Evert to briefly stop speaking to his daughter. Navratilova invited Evert to spend Christmas with her in Aspen. She took her skiing and to a New Year’s party at the Hotel Jerome, where she knew there would be good-looking men in droves. That night Evert met the impossibly handsome Mill, who the next day gallantly coached Evert down a steep slope, skiing backward and holding her hands.

At the end of the week, as Navratilova packed to leave for the Australian Open, Evert appeared in her doorway. “Do you mind if I stay on for a few days?” Evert asked. Navratilova arched an eyebrow and smiled. “Sure.” With the house to herself, Evert had her first tryst with Mill, causing the gentleman to exclaim the next morning, “My God, I’m with Chris Evert in Martina Navratilova’s bed.” Evert’s 1988 wedding to Mill marked the rare occasion when Navratilova wore a skirt. Years later, Navratilova was still teasing Evert. “I should have put that bed on eBay.”

In 2014, when Navratilova wed longtime partner Julia Lemigova, she did not have to debate whom to choose as maid of honor. Evert was by her side. “But of course,” Navratilova says.

Navratilova had never properly told Evert how much her unwavering support against homophobia had meant. Especially in crucial moments such as 1990, when Australian champion Margaret Court called Navratilova a “bad role model” for being gay. “Martina is a role model to me,” Evert snapped back publicly. As Navratilova put it, Evert was “gay-friendly before it was okay to be.” It made Navratilova’s public life incalculably more bearable. “It was more than nice,” Navratilova says now of Evert’s stance. “It was huge.” On matters of character, Navratilova says, Evert “underrates herself.”

Here’s where they stood when the cancers came. Evert had just finished rearing three adored sons to adulthood and was resolutely single again, after a psychological reckoning. Her long emotional containment finally imploded in 2006: She left Mill for former pro golfer Greg Norman; a terrible mistake, the union lasted just 15 months. Determined to know herself better, she went into counseling “to figure out what makes me tick and how I’m wired, why I’m wired the way I am and why I have made mistakes the way I have” and emerged with a piercing self-honesty. She reestablished a closeness with Mill and reinvested herself in her second calling as a mentor to young prodigies at the developmental tennis camp she founded, the Evert Tennis Academy. At over 60, she could still go for two hours on a court with women a third her age.

Just down the freeway from her, Navratilova had found her “anchor” with Lemigova, with whom she step-mothered two daughters and cared for an assortment of animals: donkeys, goats, dogs and exotic birds, including a talkative parrot named Pushkin. One of the most broadly read great athletes who ever lived, she absorbed tomes such as Timothy Snyder’s account of encroaching fascism, “The Road to Unfreedom,” with a lightning intelligence that could light up a hillside.

In February 2020, a funeral notice appeared in the Fort Lauderdale papers: Mass for Jeanne Evert Dubin would be said at 10 a.m. at St. Anthony’s Church. Evert had watched with mounting grief as her precious younger sister fought ovarian cancer until her arms were bruised by needles and ports and she wasted to less than 80 pounds.

Sitting in a pew was Navratilova, who would spend the next 12 hours by Evert’s side. She attended the graveside services, then sat with Evert and her family at home until 10 that night.

Nearly two years after Jeanne’s death, in November 2021, Evert got a call out of the blue from the Cleveland Clinic. Genetic testing that Jeanne had undergone during her illness had been reappraised with new study, and she had a BRCA1 variant that was pathogenic. The doctor recommended that Evert get tested immediately. The very next day Evert got a test — and she, too, was positive for the BRCA1 mutation. Her doctor, Joe Cardenas, recommended an immediate hysterectomy.

Evert called Navratilova and told her about the test and that she was scheduled for surgery and further testing. “It’s preventive,” Evert told her reassuringly. On the other end of the phone, she heard Navratilova exhale, “Ohhhhhhhhh,” a long sigh of inarticulate dismay. In 2010, Navratilova had been diagnosed with a noninvasive breast cancer after making the mistake of going four years without a mammogram. Her cancer was contained — but still. Navratilova wouldn’t feel comfortable for Evert until all the tests had come back.

“The first thing, the very first thing I thought of was, if I’m going to go through these trenches with anybody, Martina would be the person I’d want to go through them with,” Evert says. “Because she’s … strong. She doesn’t take any nonsense from people. She just gets the job done. And I think that’s the mentality I had.”
When Evert’s pathology report came back after the surgery, however, she felt anything but strong: Surgery revealed high-grade malignancy in her fallopian tubes. Evert would have to undergo a second surgery, to harvest lymph nodes and test fluid in her stomach cavity, to determine what stage she was. Jeanne’s cancer had not been discovered until she was Stage 3; “I knew that anything Stage 3 or 4, you don’t have a good chance,” Evert says.

For three days, Evert waited for the results with the understanding that they were life-or-death. “Humble moment,” Evert says. “You know, just because I was No. 1 in the world, it doesn’t — I’m just like everyone else.”

Evert got unfathomably lucky. The cancer hadn’t progressed. Had she waited even three more months to be tested, it probably would have spread. As soon as she was able, Evert would go public with her diagnosis to encourage testing. An estimated 25 million people carry a BRCA mutation, and like her, 90 percent of them have no idea. “I had felt fine, I was working out, and I had cancer in my body,” she says.

Evert still had a hard road ahead, with six cycles of chemo, but her chances of recovery were 90 percent. Her eldest son, Alex, moved in to support her daily care and even designed a workout regimen so she could sweat out the poisons. Mill took her to every chemo treatment and held her hand. Her good friend Christiane Amanpour, also diagnosed with ovarian cancer, sent her healing ointments from Paris. Her youngest sister, Clare, flew in monthly to nurse her through the sickish aftereffects, even climbing into bed with her.

But nothing can really make cancer a collective experience; it’s an experiential impasse. Everyone responds differently to the treatment and the accompanying dread. Late at night, Evert would be sleepless from the queasiness and a strange sense of small electric shocks biting into her bones. She would have to slip out of bed and walk around the house, by herself with it. “Cancer makes you feel alone,” Evert says. “Because it’s like, nobody can take that pain from you.”

Compounding Evert’s sense of aloneness was the abruptness with which she had toppled from a sense of supreme athletic command to feebleness. There was one person who could understand that. “What can I do for you?” Navratilova asked. They were in a room of just two, all over again. “I can tell her my fears,” Evert says. “I can be 100 percent honest with her.”

Navratilova came by the house and called regularly, but she also knew how to “lay back.” Sometimes she would call and Evert would answer right away. And sometimes it would take three or four days before she answered. It felt, in a way, like the old locker room days when she knew Evert was laboring with a loss. “I think because we were there for each other before, we kind of knew what to do or what not to do, instinctively, even though this was a first,” Navratilova says.

In the middle of Evert’s treatments, a gift arrived from Navratilova. It was a large piece of art. The canvas was lacquered with Evert’s favorite playing surface, red clay, and painted with white tennis lines, on which a series of ball marks were embedded, including one that had ticked the white line. The piece was by Navratilova herself, who in retirement took up art. The canvas was really a portrait — of Evert, of the exquisite, measured precision of her game. A tribute. Evert immediately hung it in a primary place in her living room.

After every cycle of treatment, Evert would rebound with a tenacity that astounded Navratilova. She would plead with her doctors, “Can I get on a treadmill?” Just days removed from an IV, she would start power walking again or riding her beloved Peloton bike until she was slick with sweat. She even did light CrossFit workouts with weights. “She’s an animal,” Navratilova observes admiringly.

By the summer 2022, Evert was healthy enough to go back to work as a broadcaster (although with a wig), and in November she joined Navratilova in a public appearance at the season-ending WTA Finals in Fort Worth. The pair went shopping together for cowboy boots and hats, strolling through the Fort Worth Stockyards historic district. And that’s when Evert delivered a piece of news that undid Navratilova. “I’m having a double mastectomy,” Evert said. She explained that her BRCA mutation meant she was at high risk of developing breast cancer on top of the ovarian.

Navratilova was so affected, she burst into tears. “It was such a shock to me because I thought she was done,” she says, and as she retells the story, she weeps again. She had watched Evert go public with her diagnosis and slug her way through chemo, and she hoped she was past it. Now she would face more months of convalescence. “I knew what she was going through publicly and privately,” Navratilova says, “and it just knocked me on my ass.”

Navratilova was still grappling with Evert’s news when she was floored by her own cancer diagnosis. During the Fort Worth trip, Navratilova felt a sore lump in her neck. She wasn’t taking any chances and underwent a biopsy when she got home. Evert got a text from Navratilova. Can you call me as soon as possible? I need to talk to you. Evert checked her phone and saw that Navratilova had also tried to call her. Evert thought, Oh, s–t. That’s not good.

Navratilova’s sore lump proved to be a cancerous lymph node. Like Evert, she had to undergo multiple lumpectomies and further tests, with a frightening three days waiting for the results, worried that it had advanced into her organs. “I’m thinking, ‘I could be dead in a year,’ ” she says. She distracted herself by thinking about her favorite subject, beautiful cars, and browsing them online.

Which car am I going drive in the last year of my life, she asked herself. A Bentley? A Ferrari?

The verdict when the testing came back was a combination of relief and gut punch. The throat cancer was a highly curable Stage 1, but the follow-up screening also revealed she had an early-stage breast cancer, unrelated to her previous bout. She was so stunned she had a hard time even driving herself home. But by the time Evert reached her by phone, Navratilova was in an incredulous, fear-fueled rage. “I sensed that it really pissed her off more than anything,” Evert says. “She was mad about it.”

“Can you believe it!” Navratilova stormed. “It’s in my throat. And then they found something in my breast.”

For a minute, the two of them considered the bizarreness of both fighting cancer at the same time. Navratilova had always chased Evert, but she didn’t want to chase her in this pursuit. “Jesus. I guess we’re taking this to a whole new level,” Navratilova said.

And then they both started giggling.

“Because it was just so ironic,” Evert says.

But then Navratilova grew serious again. She admitted to Evert, “I’m scared.”
It was the same sudden whiff of mortality, the same you’re not so special after all jolt that Evert had gotten. “As a top-level athlete, you think you’re going to live to a hundred and that you can rehab it all,” Navratilova says. “And then you realize, ‘I can’t rehab this.’ So sharing that fear was easy — easier with her than anybody else.”

Navratilova’s cancer was not as dangerous as Evert’s, but it was more arduous. It required three cycles of chemo, 15 sessions of targeted proton therapy on her throat, 35 more proton treatments on the lymph nodes in her neck and five sessions of conventional radiation on her breast. Navratilova arranged to do it at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, hunkering down at a friend’s vacant apartment.

Unbelievably, Navratilova chose to undergo most of it alone. She wanted to protect her family from worry over her. “You just keep it in because you don’t want to affect the people around you.” She also wanted to cultivate her former big-match mentality, to focus on the fight. “Even just answering the question when somebody says, ‘Can I get you anything?’ it takes energy,” Navratilova says now. “And it’s just easier to not have to think what you’re going to say or to deny help 10 times.”

The proton treatments were a series of slow singes. Her sense of taste turned to ashes, and swallowing felt like an acid rinse. As her weight plunged, she shivered on the cold medical tables, unable to get warm, to the point that she wore a ski vest to the hospital. She developed deep circles under her eyes from insomnia.

As the poisons mounted in her, it was as if she aged 50 years overnight. “Everything felt just wrong,” she says. This was a woman who had trekked up Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 54, reaching 14,000 feet before she was felled with a case of pulmonary edema. At 65, she could still do 30 push-ups in a row. Now she needed two hands to drink a glass of water.

Evert had an almost intuitive sense of when to check up on Navratilova. Just when she would be near despair, not trusting herself to drink from a glass with one quivering hand, the phone would buzz, and it would be Evert. “What stands out is the timing,” Navratilova says. “It was always spot on. Like she knew I was at a low point. I don’t know how she knew, but she did. It was like some kind of cosmic connection. Because it was uncanny.”

Evert would be briskly sympathetic and to the point. “Don’t tough it out,” she would say, then just listen. There was no need for question or explanation. There was just understanding. “It was always there,” Navratilova says. “So we didn’t have to, like, try to find it.”

Sometimes the only sound on the line would be two people breathing, wordless with mutual comprehension.

Evert says, “With all the experiences we had, winning and losing and comforting each other, I think we ended up having more compassion for each other than anybody in the world could have.”

Their finest rally

As Evert and Navratilova finish picking over lunch salads, their senses of renewal in the Miami sunshine make them seem almost radiant. Life feels clearer, “uncluttered,” Evert says. From a distance, they cut the figures of teenagers. Evert is as neatly trim as ever, an impression enhanced by her newly grown pixie-length platinum hair. Navratilova, too, is slender as a youth. Only up close do you see lingering creases of fatigue around their eyes and sense the scars beneath their clothes and the tentativeness of their confidence.

Evert admits she is “hesitant” to say her cancer is really gone. “It could come back. Look, it could come back. It’s cancer, right? It’s always peripheral.” Navratilova agrees. She compares it to waking up on the morning of an important match, a Wimbledon final, with the reverse of anticipation. For the first few seconds of semiconsciousness after opening her eyes she feels peace, and then the awareness of something important and pending seeps in. And then it hits her: cancer. “It’s always hovering,” Navratilova says. “You just put it out of sight. You go on with what you’re doing.”

The way they go on is as follows. They go public with their diagnoses and accounts of treatment because all those years that they were clashing over trophies, they also had a sense of a larger public responsibility, to “the game or women athletes or women,” as Navratilova says. A sense that it wasn’t enough just to be great; they also had to be good for something. “To help,” Evert says.

They work out as much as the doctors allow, maybe even a little more than they advise, at first provisionally and then with growing defiance, even though each of their bodies is “still fighting the crap that’s inside it,” as Navratilova says, in her case doing just two push-ups and going skiing before her radiation was done. (“Skiing! During radiation!” Evert crows in disbelief.) They lift weights above their shoulders though the sore scars in their chests aren’t entirely healed, and they hit on the tennis court, though in Navratilova’s case, the effort to chase a ball even two steps leaves her winded, and in Evert’s, it makes her feel clumsy-footed and angry, until she reminds herself, Chrissie, who do you think are? And then she calls Navratilova, and they both laugh at themselves in this companionable frailty.

There are statues of Arthur Ashe at the U.S. Open, Fred Perry at Wimbledon, Rod Laver at the Australian Open and Rafael Nadal at the French Open. The blazers who run the major championships have not yet commissioned sculptures of these two women, who so unbound their sport and gave the gift of professional aspiration to so many. Yet who exemplify, perhaps more than any champions in the annals of their sport, the deep internal mutual grace called sportsmanship.

But then, they don’t need bronzing. They have something much warmer than that. Each other.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.

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