1978: Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert 2–6, 6–4, 7–5
Martina Navratilova was intense, emotional and temperamental. Everything that Chris Evert was not. Navratilova was also a distant second to world No 1 Evert when the 1978 Wimbledon Championships came around.
Evert, 23 at the time, had already won seven singles majors by then; Navratilova was in her first final. While the 21-year-old Navratilova was known for her mood swings and rebellion, Evert was America’s sweetheart.
Having defected from the communist Czechoslovakia in 1975, Navratilova played under the US flag. She had won the women’s doubles title with Evert in 1976.
The left-handed Navratilova’s game seemed tailored for the grass, but she hadn’t yet made a mark in singles at the majors and had won only four of the 24 matches against Evert up until the the summit clash at Wimbledon 1978.
Best of the best
The top two seeds in the women’s draw, Navratilova and Evert had fought their way through to the finals. But going into the championship match, Evert was the firm favourite.
And she stuck to the form book, winning the first set with ease. However, Evert, was admittedly more distracted than comforted by the presence of British tennis player John Lloyd, who she had began dating during the Championships and married the next year, in her player box.
For Navratilova, the ‘wake-up’ call came in the middle of the second set. After going up 3-2, she was on the brink of letting the advantage slip. Navratilova looked visibly frustrated as she served a double fault to fall behind 15-30 in the sixth game.
In the next point, she drew Evert into the net with a drop, but couldn’t get out of the way on Evert’s next shot as the American slammed a high forehand volley right at her opponent. Navratilova fell over dramatically, and the players laughed off the incident.
But Navratilova said later, “I think when she hit me, that woke me up.”
She held her serve in the game and carried that lead to win the second set 6-4. Navratilova was able to dictate play with her predatory instinct at the net, which saw her win a total of nine Wimbledon singles titles eventually.
In the decider, she went ahead 2-0, then lost four games in a row. Evert, who had won the title in 1974 and 1976, was known as the ‘Ice maiden’ and played some persistent tennis from the back of the court. The contrast in game styles, as much as personalities, is what made the Evert-Navratilova rivalry so gripping. And the 1978 final provided a thrilling opening chapter.
It was Navratilova who finished strong, winning 12 of the last 13 points to capture her first Wimbledon title.
“When you are up 30-0, then 40-0, suddenly you think, ‘Oh My god! You could really do this’,” she said in the official Wimbledon documentary. “Then my heart started pounding like I had never felt it before. Everything is completely still, all of a sudden you hear your heart, you hear yourself breathe, everything is just magnified, this pounding in your head. Okay, now, ‘I gotta get my first serve in again.’ It was frightening.”
On match-point, 40-0 up in the 12th game, she served down the middle, quickly came up behind her serve, chopped a backhand volley in Evert’s forehand corner, which was never returned.
“’I jumped sky high as soon as Chris didn’t get the ball back,” Navratilova beamed.
Even as the world woke up to a new Wimbledon champion, Navratilova’s joy was dampened by the fact that she hadn’t seen her family, still back in Czechoslovakia for three years.
It was the first of her 18 singles Grand Slam titles and it helped propel her to World No 1 a week later, a position she held for a total of 332 weeks.
“I was so happy, but it was bittersweet because my parents weren’t there and I didn’t even know if they were going to be able to see the match,” Navratilova told the New York Times. “That’s when you put the blinders on and just keep going. It was all very emotional, but you don’t dwell on it because, if you do, you can’t play.”
A year later, Navratilova won again. But this time, with the help of the Duchess of Kent, her mother Jana had been able to travel to London to watch her daughter emerge triumphant.