Miroslav and Jana Navratilova had promised their daughter Martina that if she reached the Wimbledon finals, they would drive the 80 miles from Prague to the West German border to watch the telecast of the match on a German station.
"I'm not sure how they'll find out," Martina said after she had won her semifinal match. "Since I defected three years ago there hasn't been a word about me in the Czech newspapers. Tomorrow they will probably say that Chris Evert is playing somebody in the Wimbledon finals. My parents will figure it out, or they will hear it on Voice of America."
What they have undoubtedly learned by now is that their daughter twice came from behind to beat Evert 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 to win, at 21, her first major singles title. Toward the end of the match, when the tension crackled around Centre Court, it was Navratilova who remained steady, who indeed played the way Evert is supposed to, while Chris herself came unstrung.
There was no clue in the first set that this would be any different from the familiar Evert scenario: an opponent begins well enough but is slowly ground to pulp by a relentless barrage of laser-beam shots that skim the net and find the corners of the court. From 2-2, Evert won four straight games to take the set, helped too often by Navratilova's errors, the kind players never seem to make except when they find themselves playing Chris.
July 16, 1978
So now it was time for Martina to leave quietly, for as recently as a year ago she had the reputation of cracking when pressured. Marvelous athlete, best in the business, but when losing she would pace about the court with a petulant look, as if some invisible demon were aiding the opponent, perhaps raising the net whenever Martina hit the ball.
But during the past year Navratilova has gained in confidence and maturity, helped in part by her permanent residence in the U.S. She also has benefited from the friendship and counsel of former pro golfer Sandra Haynie, who handles her business affairs and was cheering every point of the way at Wimbledon, especially in the second set of the final when Martina went right for Chris' throat, breaking her serve in the first game, and, when she had lost her own in the next game, breaking Chris again. This time Navratilova didn't let up. Her powerful first serve kept bailing her out whenever she needed it—"It was too much for me," Evert said later—and she won the second set 6-4.
So now who do you like? And if you say Navratilova, try this: at 3-2 Evert, Martina hit a lousy backhand into the bottom of the net. "Don't panic!" she yelled. But for the next three points it didn't matter what she did as Evert played her best tennis of the tournament, twice hitting low line-drive returns of serve for winners and winning a long rally. Martina's serve was broken at love, and it was 4-2 Evert.
But Martina broke right back and held serve to square the set. Evert, struggling now, held on to win her serve and take a 5-4 lead. Surely she would make Martina crack. Instead, shockingly, Navratilova won seven straight points, dropped one and then won five more in a row and went on to win the set and the match. In the end it was Chris who was hitting wildly, out of control. Martina was in command.
Later Navratilova wept and laughed. She said she was sad her parents were not there—she has not seen them since she defected—and said she would always be a Czech, no matter what her citizenship.
Navratilova encountered no real resistance during the early rounds, disposing of, among others, 15-year-old Tracy Austin. Both Tracy and Pam Shriver, who had just turned 16, charmed Wimbledon, Pam winning twice before losing to Sue Barker in a heartbreaker in which she had three match points. Tracy won three matches, but Martina blew her off the court 6-2, 6-3, taking the first four games with the loss of only two points. "One cannot think of Tracy as a child," Navratilova said. "If you do, she' will beat you." Which is what Tracy did earlier this year, ending Martina's 37-match winning streak.
Navratilova's semifinal victory over Evonne Goolagong was as dramatic as her victory in the finals. Since returning to tennis after having a baby 14 months ago, Goolagong has been plagued by an aching left Achilles tendon and, like Billie Jean King, she was getting a variety of injections before each match. The day before, while playing Virginia Ruzici, a complication from a cortisone shot had given her leg cramps. Losing 2-5 in the first set, she had been in such agony, tears streaming down her face, that her husband had stepped onto the court to comfort her during the changeover. Had Ruzici known the rules, she could have insisted on a forfeit. As it was, she let the incident throw her. She started hitting wild shots, sulked, and lost five games in a row. Exit Ruzici.
For a set against Navratilova, Goolagong looked like the best player in the world, which she once was, moving with speed and grace and hitting so many glorious sliced backhands that Martina seemed clumsy and could only stare hopelessly toward her friends in the stands. Evonne won 6-2, but Martina regrouped and took the second set 6-4. The tension increased as the final set went to 3-3. At advantage Goolagong, Evonne sprinted desperately to her right, sent up a lob and let out a cry of pain that pierced the silence of Centre Court and stunned everyone, Martina included. She let the ball fall for a winner and hurried over to where Evonne was bent over holding her left calf. "I don't think I can continue," Goolagong said.
Now Martina was in a quandary. She had not gone for Goolagong's shot, and although the rules slate she might have been permitted a replay, the umpire allowed the point to stand. Her frustration increased when Goolagong did not retire, instead hobbled to the baseline to receive service. It was clear she could not run, but she somehow hit a gorgeous winner on the second point, which had Martina beside herself. If Navratilova made Goolagong run, she might have been booed off Centre Court, but if she didn't, she might lose. As it was, Goolagong's mobility was so limited—and it developed she could not really serve—that she lost three quick games and the match.
Evert, like Navratilova, sailed through her early matches, but all was not going as smoothly as it seemed. Her lengthy vacation from the game at the start of the year, while mentally refreshing, had kept her from being as tough as she wanted. In one early match she found herself absorbed in a nearby scoreboard that showed that defending champion Virginia Wade was in trouble. Next thing she knew she was, too, dropping a set to Laura DuPont before dispatching her 6-1, 4-6, 6-0.
In the quarterfinals, Evert met her friendly nemesis, Billie Jean King. Superficially, King seemed her old self. "I'm going to gut it out," she would say, referring to just about anything. But although she had worked hard at physical conditioning, at 34 she is hampered by physical ailments, and at Wimbledon she was getting shots before each match for a painful bone spur on her heel.
For more than an hour she had Chris in trouble, losing the first set but gutting it out to win the second, the first one she had taken from Evert in three years of tournament play. With Evert leading 3-2 in the third, King served to 40-love and seemed about to square the match, but Chris rattled off five straight points. "That was the cruncher," King said later. Evert ran it out 6-2.
Which brought her to the semifinal against Wade. Revenge match. Last year Wade upset Evert on her way to the title, and this year she insisted she could do it again, that she wanted the second even more than the first. During the early going both women looked shaky. Wade's serve was landing in the Royal Box, and Evert was losing points she had virtually won by failing to come to the net, which she hates to do.
At 7-6 Evert, a net cord shot and a lunging lob that landed on the baseline for a winner gave Chris an edge, and a minute later she had the set 8-6. With that, Wade's resistance dissolved and the match was soon over.
It's always like that when people play Chris Evert. At least, it was.