Friends and foes

ROHIT BRIJNATH

POSSIBLY the most overdue book in sport arrived on bookshelves this month and it is a sweet read worth the long wait. Johnette Howard's The Rivals is an enchanting, erudite dissection of the most beautiful rivalry sport has been privileged to witness. Surnames are redundant. Chris and Martina everyone knows.

McEnroe and Borg played 14 times, Sampras and Agassi played 34 times, Becker and Edberg 35 times, Graf and Sabatini 40 times. But Chris and Martina stared each other across the net on 80 occasions, 14 times in Grand Slam finals, their first meeting ever in 1973, their last in 1988. The Czech-American finished 43-37 ahead, but really, who cared. For me it's enough that I saw them play each other.

Evert off court was a far more complex, and considerably less conventional, person than her Ice Princess moniker suggested, but on court she carried a schoolteacher's sternness. Her signature under stress was narrowed eyes and pursed lips, and even Martina, when she saw it, knew, whoa, here comes trouble. This was a warrior queen in a frilly dress.

Navratilova, wonderfully chiselled, never afraid of net or press room argument, athletically and emotionally unrestrained, negotiating bravely the hard journey of defection, once in a desperately poignant moment hugged a light pole after her first professional tournament win because she did not know anyone in America well enough to hug.

Baseliner versus serve and volleyer, calm versus chaos, these women owned tennis, defined it, winning between them 36 Grand Slam singles titles, and in a coincidence almost chilling finishing with 18 each. In 1982, Martina's win-loss record was a clinical 90-3, in 1983 it was 86-1; Evert once won 125 consecutive matches on clay and finished her career with the best winning percentage ever of .900 (1309-146).

But the uniqueness, the freshness, the pleasure, the mystery of this rivalry was not that they were women with sharply contrasting personalities and stark dissimilarities in styles. Or that their duel kept evolving, first one ahead, then the other, each woman challenged by other and thus forced to grow as athletes and human beings by the other. No, it was in the staggering truth that through it all, and even now, they are friends.

The more you consider it the more appealing it is. Mutual respect is the clich� that rivals mostly offer each other, often through gritted teeth, desperate to give a rivalry some humanness in front of the camera. But almost as a rule, rivalries are served cold, as if to dehumanise the opponent is to gain an advantage.

Many fine duels are famous for the dislike they evoked, egos too big to stay in a room without colliding, competitive spirits spilling over till it becomes almost unseemly. Frazier truly hated a cruel Ali, Prost and Senna could barely look at each other. Mats Wilander suggested to me this year that players have to find a way to "hate" Roger Federer, to artificially manufacture a dislike for some facet of the Swiss. Perhaps it will work.

It is almost bizarrely fashionable, in soccer for instance, to build up differences, to see derbies as small battles between cities. Fans do not merely cheer their teams, more fun is to be found in belittling the opposition. Respect has flown away with every thrown flare.

In cricket these days it is all about being "hard", and usually this involves a cultivated ability to be rude to a visiting player. Graeme Smith says England is "hard" presumably because they chat back and can respond in kind to the Australians. As if somehow winning requires a talent at discourtesy and decency is a suggestion of weakness.

When Simon Jones hurled the ball recently at Matthew Hayden, who is capable of writing treatises on bullying, it was considered manly that the England team stood behind Jones. Apparently backing your mate even when he is an idiot is a sign of spirited teamwork. Swagger is fine, such silliness is not.

Understandably, dominating a sport requires single-mindedness, greatness necessitates a certain ruthlessness, and it leaves little room for friendship and cuddling. So be it. McEnroe went out partying with Borg and seemed deflated when the Swede abruptly retired, but friendship for them would be overstatement. Sampras and Jim Courier played doubles in their earlier years but found it got in the way of their duels. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson barely even exchanged a word while playing for the same team in last year's Ryder Cup.

Not all rivals must be expected to plant kisses on cheeks before boxing bouts and hand out roses before bowling bouncers. Love is not required, friendship is not a necessity. But what Evert and Navratilova, both desperately competitive, suggested was that animosity is not always necessary, that friendship is not the hindrance some might believe it is.

Did they exchange harsh words, did they take sly digs at each other, did they not talk for periods? Yes. But they also hit-up together, shared cookies before matches, and then consoled each other later.

As Howard writes: "These were two people who fervently wanted the same thing, found the other blocking the way and ultimately forgave each other for it. They were bound by their athletic superiority. They were operating so far above everyone else on tour, needing to fear only each other, and they realised that they were the only two people who really, truly understood what the other was going through".

In 1986, recounts Howard, 11 years after her defection, Navratilova made her first emotional return to Czechoslovakia for a Federation Cup tie. Evert went with her, despite suffering from a knee injury. When the Czech national anthem, "Where is my home" began to play, Evert saw a tear of Navratilova's fall on her shoes and put an arm around her and left it there. When Navratilova, having defeated Evert in the Australian Open final one year, found her rival particularly heartbroken in the locker room, she sat down and wept with her, too.

For me, one day, one photograph tells it all. It is the end of the magnificent 1985 French Open final, both women at the net, faces alive with smiles, arms around each other, heads together, and there is no sign, no clue, no indicator, to who has won. It is a memory never to be lost.