Here is an excellent review of Unmatched, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the friendship and tennis rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. I don’t know if ESPN will be airing this again, but it is worth checking your local listings if you missed it last week. It was a unique documentary in that it was as much about their relationship off the court as it was about their on-court rivalry. Of course, the two are intertwined so it is difficult to separate them. I loved that the documentary was actually a conversation between the two of them. It was two old friends taking a weekend in a beach house together to talk about old times (on camera, of course). They chatted over tea on comfortable couches, in the kitchen, while jogging together, walking on the beach. They hit a few tennis balls. They drove around in a cool Mercedes convertible. All the while sharing memories, sometimes their separate takes on the same event, sometimes observations on themselves and each other. These chats were interspersed with footage of their matches and still photos of each of them growing up.
They talked briefly about Martina’s coming out in 1981. Chris already knew and said she admired Martina’s honesty. Chris met her former husband, Andy Mill, through Martina. Andy and Chris even slept for the first time in Martina’s bed in Aspen. Chris shared that she and Martina had a double date once. I thought it was going to be a lesbian/straight date, but alas, it was Martina and Dino Martin with Chris and Desi Arnez. Martina shared that this was before she was sure what her sexuality was. It seems that Dino was quite attracted by Martina’s muscles, much to Chris’ chagrin since she was the one who though Dino was cute. Funny story.
It was also interesting to hear Chris talk about how hurt she was during the time that basketball player/analyst, Nancy Liebermann, was Martina’s coach (and lover). While Nancy did spur Martina to train on a level that took Martina’s game to a higher level, Nancy’s philosophy was that you needed to hate your opponent in order to beat them. Her insistence that Martina view Chris as an enemy broke up their doubles partnership. Her poisonous perspective threatened what would become a sports friendship for the ages. Let’s all be thankful that Chris and Martina’s friendship survived Nancy’s attempt to ruin it.
It was touching to hear them each say that the other is one of the first friends they contact when in crisis or when something important happens in their lives. Such an enduring friendship between two women who are so different from each other, yet so bonded and connected by their athletic careers reminds us what sports can be in addition to competition. It can be about relationships and how competition doesn’t need to be about winning at all costs, especially the cost of a friendship. Relationships among competitors, even at the top of their careers can spur each one to greater accomplishments and deeper understanding and appreciation for a rival.
Chris and Martina share experiences only the two of them can truly understand. Watching Unmatched, I felt privileged to be invited to share a glimpse of their apparent affection and respect for each other. Nancy Lieberman was wrong and I for one am thankful. I hope you get a chance to see this documentary.