This time they were on the same side, and they’ve won. At least for now.
Even if we weren’t tennis enthusiasts, it was hard not to know who Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were through the 70s, 80s and even 90s. Their rivalry over 15 years and 80 matches resulted in each winning 18 Grand Slam events.
Chris had the blond ponytail, hair ribbons, earrings and a two-handed backhand. She was portrayed as both the all-American girl and an ‘ice maiden’.
Martina defected from communist Czechoslovakia. She grew up in a village outside Prague, and according to Sally Jenkins in her article for The Washington Post early this month, learned English from re-runs of I Love Lucy.
Jenkins points out that in contrast to Chris’s steely restraint, Martina was emotional and arrived on the tennis circuit as a plump and unfit 16-year-old.
But that soon changed and mostly we’d remember her power and athleticism. Male sportswriters fixated on the veins in her arms, proof that she didn’t fit the ladylike image expected of female tennis players.
And, of course, she couldn’t, and didn’t, hide that she was gay.
Chris and Martina’s tennis relationship had its ups and downs, mostly because it was hard to be friends and rivals. Through it all the media also chronicled the ups and downs of their love lives.
But after they retired from singles play — in 1989 for Chris and 1994 for Martina — they often lived close to one another. Since both became commentators, they saw each other at Grand Slams and the friendship picked up.
Then in early 2020 Chris’s younger sister Jeannie died at age 62 from ovarian cancer.
In January last year, Chris discovered that she too had ovarian cancer. Both sisters inherited the BRCA1 genetic mutation which greatly increases the chances of ovarian and breast cancer.
Although it was early stage, she was advised to have a hysterectomy and given six cycles of chemotherapy. Late last year she made the call to also have a double mastectomy.
Martina had barely digested that news when she felt a sore lump in her neck and discovered she had two cancers, in her throat and breast. She’d previously been diagnosed with non-invasive breast cancer in 2010, but this episode was unrelated.
While Martina’s situation wasn’t as dangerous as Chris’s, her treatment was possibly more grueling, and she lost around 13 kilograms.
For now, their treatment is done and they’re cancer-free. Aside from being struck by the irony of both women dealing with the disease at the same time, and the warmth and depth of their 50-year friendship, what can we take away from their story?
One: cancer doesn’t discriminate. Fit, healthy women can get it. More than once.
Two: it’s wise to act quickly if we find something suspicious. In both cases their malignancy was in its early stages. Chris was lucky. Often there aren’t many signs of ovarian cancer, and hers was only found after tests showed she had the BRCA1 gene.
And three: the grittiest of women can still experience frailty. We all need good friends. Especially when we’re in the trenches.
Bitter Rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors. Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post 3 July 2023
Photo Source: Washington Post