Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Rivalry Like No Other

It is much too early to label Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova the successors to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova as the greatest rivals in women's tennis.

Sharapova and Kvitova have only played in one Grand Slam final. There may be several more clashes in their future — or there may be no more.

But, since we are only removed from their memorable Wimbledon final by a few weeks, I just thought I would reflect a little on that Evert–Navratilova rivalry.

Their last Grand Slam final was played 25 years ago. It was in the French Open, where they played for a Grand Slam title the first time, back in 1973. When they played for that French Open title in 1986, Evert was 31. Navratilova was not yet 30. The world had watched them grow from teenagers to their sport's elder stateswomen.

I don't know if we will ever witness another rivalry like it. In a 15–year span, they met 80 times. More than three–quarters of the time, they met in the final of a tournament — and nearly a quarter of those matches were Grand Slam finals.

I have compared them to the Lakers and the Celtics of the 1980s. That's a good comparison, I think, although it doesn't hold up 100%.

True, those teams didn't face each other in the NBA Finals as frequently in the 1980s as they did in the 1960s; nevertheless, in the 1980s it often seemed that, no matter how well any of the other teams had played, the early rounds of the playoffs merely served as warmups for the inevitable championship series between Boston and Los Angeles.

And that's what the women's singles were like in Grand Slams in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, other women did win those titles from time to time — but the early rounds of tournaments often seemed like a waste of time in those days.

There was Chris Evert, and there was Martina Navratilova. And then there was everyone else.

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