On This Day: Evert Wins Record 7th French Open
Published June 04, 2011 11:49
FLASHBACK: Saturday, June 7, 1986
By the spring of 1986, the balance of power in the then-13-year rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had shifted into a final phase. Evert, dominant through the seventies, had been overtaken by a newly resolute Navratilova in the early eighties. But heading into the French Open they had reached a state of relative equilibrium. Navratilova was still winning more often, but Evert was now doing enough to keep things interesting.
The bellwether win for Evert had been her stunning three set defeat of Navratilova in the 1985 French Open final. While she had actually ended a demoralizing 13-match losing streak against Navratilova at Key Biscayne a couple of months earlier - her efforts to beef up her own game were paying off - she hadn't beaten her chief combatant in Grand Slam play since the 1982 Australian Open. The three hour dramafest on the terre battue had shown Navratilova wasn't invincible, and returned Evert to No.1 for the first time in four years.
So, while the 1985 Paris final would go down as the greatest encounter of an epic 80-match rivalry, the mood heading into the 1986 final - their 69th career meeting - was quite different. Although Navratilova had prevailed in their three meetings in the intervening 12 months, two of the three matches had been on grass and the other on carpet - surfaces that favored her attacking style. Even so, two of the matches had gone to three sets.
In short, Evert wasn't the underdog she once was, and certainly not on clay. But the bad news for the Floridian was that Navratilova, out to set the record straight, got off to a flying start. Put on the defensive by some brilliant shot-making, Evert didn't hold serve until the seventh game of the first set; although she broke back once, it wasn't enough to prevent her opponent from clinching the opener.
However, as her nerves settled, Evert found her groove. Despite the blustery conditions she hit the lines with her accurate groundstrokes, and at times she beat Martina at her own game by sneaking to the net for putaway volleys. Evert broke Navratilova in the fourth game of the second set, and held the advantage until it was time to serve for the set. Down 0-40, she averted disaster by reeling in all three break points - one thanks to her only ace of the match - and leveled the match on her second set point when Navratilova's backhand slice approach sailed long.
While the momentum would swing again at the start of the decider, Navratilova breaking for 2-0, it was Evert who found something extra: threading the needle on passing shots, finding angles and lines, retrieving drop shots and sending lobs over Navratilova's head on the few occasions she could make her way to the net. It all ended with a drop volley the lefthander couldn't quite scoop up, leading perfectly to an exchange at the net that spoke volumes of the empathy and friendship that had grown between the two players.
"Martina is a great champion," a gracious Evert told an adoring Parisian crowd after her 26 63 63 triumph. "She's still number one in the world, no matter what happens here." For her part, Navratilova was equanimous in defeat. "I am disappointed," she told the press, "but at least I am not saying, Oh God, why did I play so badly. On a scale of one to 10, I played about an eight. Chris played a 10 the last two sets."
Between them they had now won 18 of the last 19 Grand Slam tournaments; neither could know they had just done battle in a major final for the last time, after 14 such meetings.
Her victory elevated Evert past Bjorn Borg and Suzanne Lenglen, who both won the French title six times. The record stands. Evert also remains the oldest woman to win the French title in the Open Era, at 31 years 5 months. In 13 appearances at Roland Garros - she didn't contest from 1976-78, when she was No.1 in the world and in the middle of her record 125-match streak on clay - Evert compiled a 72-6 match win record. As well as lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen seven times she was runner-up twice, and reached the semifinals three times. Her win in Paris in 1986 meant she had won at least one major title in 13 consecutive years - another record.
Evert was to play at Roland Garros on two further occasions, after what was to prove the last Grand Slam title of her career. By 1987, Steffi Graf had wedged herself between Navratilova and Evert in the rankings, so the old rivals met in the semis. Evert had only recently beaten Navratilova in a cliffhanger on clay at Houston, and was favored by many to move through to her tenth French Open final. But Navratilova posted a surprisingly easy win, 62 62.
Laboring under a painful heel spur injury, Evert made her last appearance in Paris in 1988, but the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion fell in the third round. While it wasn't the swansong the Queen of Clay deserved, no-one could know that an apt changing of the guard was at play: her conqueror was a certain Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario.
- Adam Lincoln