Review of ‘Unmatched’ ESPN’s 30 for 30

ESPN’s 30 for 30 Takes on Navratilova and Evert

Review of Unmatched Directed and Produced by

Lisa Lax and Nancy Sterm Winters

It was by accident that I got to watch this great sports documentary.  Considering that Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova won 36 combined singles Grand Slam titles and faced one another 80 times, their rivalry merits exploration on numbers alone.  Still, two things struck me while watching the documentary.  First, the public perceptions of each player were often the opposite of reality.  Evert was the strong willed competitor and Navratilova was often the soft-hearted emotional player.  No one ever accused Chris Evert of being soft, but Martina’s muscles and Slavic accent gave Cold War-era US fans the sense that she was tough and unfeeling.  Second, these two champions have true affection for one another.  This is remarkable given the number of losses each player handed to the other.

The Rivalry

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova combined to create the greatest rivalry in tennis and in women’s sports.  Sure Tennessee and UConn NCAA women’s basketball has its moments, but this rivalry propelled women’s sports into the spotlight for over a decade.  Some rivalries such the LA Lakers versus the Boston Celtics may have as much history, but tennis being an individual sport makes a huge difference in considering the magnitude of 80 meetings.  This rivalry is the top head-to-head battle in tennis history (male or female) and one of the top rivalries in the history of sports.

Key Moments

Two key moments stood out to me in the rivalry.  Each of these moments surfaced when Martina and Chris’ relationship soured to a degree.  Chris Evert stopped playing doubles with Martina in the mid 1970’s  after Martina began to win some matches against her.  Chris admitted that this was not the most admirable thing she had ever done.  By the early 1980’s, Martina Navratilova began to work with Nancy Lieberman (a watershed moment in women’s sports worthy of further investigation).  This led to a cooling in their friendship due to Lieberman’s insistence that Evert was the enemy.  Navratilova’s emotions were near the surface throughout her career.  Her increased fitness and killer instinct of Lieberman helped push Navratilova to unquestioned supremacy in women’s tennis before Steffi Graf’s emergence.  These two moments stood out to me because the warm friendship and support that was the norm in their careers was not present for two brief periods of time.

Tennis and the Cold War  

My favorite moment in the documentary was Chris Evert and the US Federation Cup Team traveling to then Czechoslovakia in 1986.   Martina was able to show her teammates her childhood home after being barred for 10 years from such travel.  Navratilova cried during the Czech anthem.  Chris Evert kept an eye on the crowd who embraced Martina and the government officials who initially snubbed her.  By the end of the event, even the government officials cheered Martina’s play.  Chris Evert being the one to notice this and relay this information to her longtime rival was a special aspect of this documentary.

There is More to Say

Unmatched is filmed with great style.  It is told from the perspective of two all-time greats talking to each other more than 20 years after Evert retired.  It was remarkable to hear Chris Evert say that Martina’s best days as a player were better than hers even if she hated to say it.  I could hear that the competitive fires are still present for both women, but the friendship each has for the other is a more powerful factor in each woman’s life than their desire to compete.

I highly recommend Unmatched to both tennis fans and sports fans who may not follow tennis closely.   It tells the story of the most unique rivalry in sports in a unique manner.  

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