WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – Navratilova/Evert rivalry:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
“Super Saturday” may not sound like a very specific term, but say the words to any tennis fan and he or she will know exactly what (very long) day you’re talking about.
The date was September 8, 1984, the second Saturday of that year’s U.S. Open. The three matches played inside Louis Armstrong Stadium—the women’s final was sandwiched between the two men’s semis—would mark one of the pinnacles of the 1970s-’80s golden era of tennis. Ivan Lendl began the proceedings by fending off 19-year-old Pat Cash in a five-set thriller; nearly 12 hours later, John McEnroe ended them by doing the same to Jimmy Connors in another five-setter.
As memorable as those contests were, though, the day’s peak—and what really made it Super—was the match in between them. Evert and Navratilova were facing off for the 61st time, and they stood at 30 wins apiece. At one stage, Navratilova had trailed in their head to head 5-20, but her victories over Evert in the French Open and Wimbledon finals earlier that summer had been her 11th and 12th straight against her rival, and had left them all even. Martina sounded as if she was happy with a tie.
“Can you imagine, 30 to 30?” Navratilova said at Wimbledon. “I wish we could just quit right now and never play each other again, because it’s not right for one of us to say we’re better.”
“Does that mean she’s retiring?” Evert responded, with a hopeful laugh.
Evert could only dream; Navratilova wasn’t going anywhere. Coming into the US Open final, she had won the last five majors, and was riding a 54-match win streak, which just happened to be one shy of Evert’s Open era record of 55. Yet through the summer, Evert felt a glimmer of hope that she could turn the tables back around on Navratilova. After bottoming out with a 6-3, 6-1 loss in the final at Roland Garros, on her beloved red clay, Evert had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the Wimbledon final, before losing 7-6 (5), 6-2.
“This is the form I’ve been looking for all year, and it hasn’t been there, but it’s here now,” Evert said as she left London.
By the time Evert reached the final at Flushing Meadows two months later, the New York crowd sensed that a breakthrough was possible. After so many defeats to Navratilova, the 29-year-old Floridian and six-time Open champion was the sentimental favorite. From the start, the audience’s support for Evert was, as she put it, “deafening.”
She responded with an inspired first set, keeping her returns and passes low, and keeping the hard-charging Navratilova from knocking off easy volleys. When Evert won it 6-4, the audience let out a roar that was “louder than anything I had ever experienced in my life,” she said. The Ice Queen was so fired up that she even attempted a fist-pump—or a fist-clench, anyway—on her way to the sideline.
As for Navratilova, she was playing into the biggest headwind of her life. Three years earlier, as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, she had received a standing ovation after her heartbreaking loss to Tracy Austin in the Open final. Now the New York crowd had done a 180; as the match progressed and Navratilova crept back into it, fans began to cheer her errors and double faults.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Navratilova said afterward. “All those people wanting me to lose.”
But like the seemingly unbeatable champion she had become, Navratilova would turn her hardest moment into one of her most hard-earned wins. At the same time, Evert, despite all of her surface optimism, would show that she wasn’t ready to beat Martina yet. Late in the second set, Evert had chances to break a struggling Navratilova, but she missed two shots—a backhand pass and a backhand return of a second serve—that she would normally have made in her sleep. Instead, it was Navratilova who broke at love in the third game of the final set, and who closed out two of her own service games down the stretch with aces.
For Evert, a day of soaring hopes ended in crushing bitterness. Trying to win the Open, and at the same time snaps her losing streak to Navratilova, had proved to be too much.
“It inhibited me so badly that when it came to the big points, I was a nervous wreck,” Evert said. “My emotions entered into it. And she didn’t beat me—I lost that match. That’s why I was so devastated.”
Yet what appeared to be a new low for Evert was really a step forward. The following spring she would finally end Navratilova’s reign of domination in the French Open final.
That defeat, in turn, would only be a blip on Navratilova’s radar screen. She would go on to win seven more major titles—the last in 1990—and finish with a 43-37 record against Evert. None of those 43 could have been more satisfying than her win at the 1984 Open.
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