By Johnette Howard
Special to ESPN.com

The following is excerpted from "The Rivals" by Johnette Howard Copyright © 2005 by Johnette Howard. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 6: Birth of a Rivalry
For Navratilova, Wimbledon had always been a touchstone, the terminus of her dreams when she was a child in Revnice, hitting ball after ball back to her father. Before she ever imagined herself going to the United States or overtaking King or Evert, Navratilova dreamed of winning Wimbledon. She saw herself hoisting the trophy over her head like Czech star Jarolsav Drobny did in 1954 or her own mixed doubles partner, Jan Kodes, did in 1973 after his three-set singles win over Soviet star Alex Metreveli. On that day, a thrilled Navratilova, then just sixteen, had waited excitedly for Kodes to come off Centre Court and jumped up to give him a peck on the cheek.

At Wimbledon in 1978, Navratilova and Evert rumbled into the championship match to no one's surprise. In the days leading up to the final, Navratilova resented the repeated questions about the presumed fears uttering around in her head. She insisted, "I'm not the same person I was a year ago. I don't think it will come down to nerves."

Hearing that, Australian star John Newcombe, who was working as a TV commentator for the match, laughed and said he hadn't thought he was going to be nervous for his first Wimbledon final, either, "until the umpire said, 'Play.' When I looked down, my racket was shaking in my hand."

Navratilova was indeed tight. She betrayed it when she broke into a nervous laugh after she and Evert made their entrance onto Centre Court and she self-consciously dipped into her curtsy to the Royal Box a half beat too soon. After that, Navratilova kept looking at Evert for cues for when to resume their walk to their courtside chairs and where to pose for the traditional pre-match photo at the net. She let out deep gusts of breath as she awaited the start of the match, as if trying to calm herself. Once it started, Evert, playing in her fourth Wimbledon final, seemed nervous as well, even though she stormed to a 6-2 first-set win.

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Navratilova made too many unforced errors to have a chance in the opening set, but a telling pattern had been established. She was charging the net at literally every opportunity and exerting the sort of relentless psychological pressure that Evert was noted for – albeit in a dramatically different way. Instead of allowing Evert to turn the match into a ground stroke war, Navratilova kept attacking and crowding the net. She changed the rhythm of the match from the tick-tock of long rallies to something closer to a frenzied Rachmaninoff symphony. Flurries of points were over in seconds. Whole games ew by. Navratilova kept probing each point for a ball to chip back and come charging in behind, and she kept driving her volleys deep to either corner. She didn't care if she was serving or Evert was. Her tactics didn't change.

Navratilova kept up a running dialogue with herself throughout the first and second sets too. "Oh no – not him again!" she blurted, eyes wide, after the same baseline linesman made a second straight close call against her. But whatever Navratilova was feeling didn't destroy her. This was Wimbledon. For a change, the anguish seemed to spur her along instead. She started to convert more of Evert's defensive lobs into overhead smashes. She was clawing back into the match, letting Evert know she was in a dogfight.

The day before the match both Navratilova and Evert had been questioned at length about how such good friends could handle being rivals. Evert explained she always tried to put a blank face on whoever her opponent across the net was – something Haynie had been counseling Navratilova to do for months. But Evert and Navratilova were only eighteen months removed from being teenage doubles partners who used to sit on their chairs during changeovers, cracking up as Evert read from a joke book that she liked to sneak on court in her racket bag. Wimbledon final or not, some of that camaraderie was still there.

With the winds gusting in the second game of their second set, Navratilova completely whiffed on an overhead smash, leaving Evert standing stock-still in the frontcourt and just staring at Navratilova. She tried to stifle a laugh as an embarrassed Navratilova slapped a palm to her forehead.

Four games later, Navratilova guessed that Evert was about to hit a crosscourt forehand and took off on a left-to-right sprint along the net – only to have Evert inadvertently smash a shot off her left temple. As a horrified Evert ran in toward her, Navratilova staggered two steps along the net, clutching her head, and theatrically fell to one knee. And the crowd laughed. "I'm all right," Navratilova assured Evert with a smile when she stood back up. When a relieved Evert playfully cuffed Navratilova on the head a few times before walking back to resume play, the crowd laughed again.

"I think when she hit me that woke me up," Navratilova said.

Navratilova fought off three break points to hold serve in that game. Her power advantage was slowly beginning to reveal itself. Evert was playing the second set for the title, but Navratilova was playing to stay alive. The urgency on both sides was evident. But Navratilova's poise was even more striking. Serving at 5-4 to extend the match, Navratilova closed out the second set at 40-30 by outlasting Evert in a tense rally.

Navratilova had refused to blink.

The crowd bellowed its approval.

They had now played an hour and a half, and there still was no hint of who was going to win.

In coming years, Navratilova would look back and call this match against Evert the most important of their eighty-match rivalry. Resolute as Navratilova had just been in the second set, the smart money remained on Evert as the match rolled into the decisive third set. "She's the hatchet woman with the cold, cold heart – she says so herself," Bud Collins said on TV.

The third set was a spellbinding tug-of-war. Even a month after the match, Navratilova claimed she could remember every point. Navratilova broke Evert's serve in the opening game and shot off to a two-games-to-nothing lead. Evert reeled her back in. All the paradoxical traits that opponents often cited about Evert – her striking tendency to actually hit harder rather than more tentatively when she was down, her habit of making her conservative game less conservative under pressure – were surfacing now.

Evert set her mouth in a taut thin line and tried her best to close Navratilova out. She left Navratilova swiping futilely at a dizzying array of shots – backhand service return winners she struck off Navratilova's booming serve, some bulletlike ground strokes that hugged the lines, short balls that she smacked on the run past Navratilova at ridiculously sharp angles.

Navratilova stared down at the grass, muttering.

Evert won four straight games in all, breaking Navratilova's serve at love in the last to seize a 4-2 final set lead. She was now just eight points from victory. The match had assumed the familiar feel of so many of Evert's previous matches – until she uncharacteristically missed a forehand. That gave Navratilova a glimmer of hope for a service break. Then Evert watched helplessly as Navratilova got her first lucky bounce of the day – a ball struck by Evert that slapped the top of the net, slithered along the tape for an agonizing instant, then plopped back onto Evert's side of the court as if exhausted.

Given that boost, Navratilova inched back to 3-4, then 4-all. When Evert squandered a break point with another mishit shot, Navratilova sprinted to her courtside chair on the changeover. Navratilova was forcing Evert to play her game now.

Evert barely held serve at 5-4 in the most suspenseful game of the match, somehow running down a drop volley by Navratilova and then bending low enough on a full sprint to dig out a backhand that she daringly sent crosscourt for a winner. "That takes great nerve and great ability!" John Newcombe raved.

Evert seemed to have shoved the pressure back across the court at Navratilova. And Navratilova – still holding a 4-20 lifetime record against Evert and teetering on a threshold where she had faltered so many times before – gathered herself for a last furious push.

And it happened.

Over the next thirteen points Navratilova and Evert played, Navratilova surrendered only one. It was as if everything Navratilova was ever going to be – or not – rose up, burst forth, and found expression in her game. She was playing with a kind of instinctive confidence now. Her volleys were unerringly struck, infallibly placed. She looked relaxed. She moved to snag Evert's shots as if she could read her mind. Her serve, always a blur, became nearly unreturnable. She leveled the match at 5-all with a love service game, then broke Evert at 15-40 to pull ahead. It was as if the court were tilting to one side beneath them. Evert tossed her head, furious at herself. They were at match point now, and Navratilova dashed to the net again, driving a half volley to left frontcourt that Evert came running, running, running in to get – only to see the ball skid under her racket frame and dribble away.

Navratilova cut loose a shriek at the net.

"I can't believe it," Navratilova kept saying, looking around Centre Court and repeating the words, her mouth covered with one hand. The crowd was standing and applauding. She and Evert were both smiling when they hugged at the net. Again, Evert playfully tapped Navratilova on the head as they walked off, Navratilova's head tilted against Evert's in relief.

To look at them, it was hard to tell who had won and who had lost the match.

Navratilova said, "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or scream."

Just before the Duchess of Kent handed Navratilova the 1978 championship plate on Centre Court, she quietly asked her about her parents in Czechoslovakia. Navratilova told the duchess that they had gone to a town near the German border where they could intercept the West German broadcast of the match.

"My only regret is my family couldn't be here to share this with me," Navratilova later said to reporters.

But it helped – a little, anyway – that her victory was a popular one. In England the next-day headlines read "The Nowhere Girl is the Queen of Wimbledon" ... "The Ecstasy of the Exile" ... "Mighty Martina!"

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