There was a moment last November, as Martina Navratilova confided in her friend and one-time tennis rival Chris Evert she had cancer, when they could only giggle.With bizarre coincidence, Martina’s devastating news of two early-stage cancers, in her throat and breast, landed less than 12 months after Chris’s own shock diagnosis of Stage 1C ovarian cancer in January last year.
“Jesus. I guess we’re taking this to a whole new level,” Martina said, sparking those giggles. “Because it was just so ironic,” Chris added, explaining their dark humour. These titans of women’s tennis, Czechoslovakia Martina, 66, and American Chris, 68, have spent half a century in hot pursuit, in one way or another.
Playing each other an incredible 80 times – Martina won 43 of their career matches, Chris, 37; both won 18 singles’ Grand Slams – they were friends, frenemies, even supposed enemies along the way.Now, finally both cancer-free, they have opened up about just how deep their friendship runs, and how it has helped them support each other through life’s most gruelling battle yet.
Explaining the pair have known each other longer than anyone else in their lives, Martina admitted telling Chris about her diagnosis was a relief.Speaking to The Washington Post, she said: “As a top-level athlete, you think you’re going to live to a hundred and that you can rehab it all. And then you realize, ‘I can’t rehab this.’ So sharing that fear was easy – easier with her than anybody else.”
Chris added: “With all the experiences we had, winning and losing and comforting each other, I think we ended up having more compassion for each other than anybody in the world could have.
“It’s been up and down, the friendship… I saw her at her highest and at her lowest. And I think because we saw each other that way, the vulnerable part, that’s another level of friendship.” Previously, she explained: “Whenever something big happens in our lives, we’re in touch immediately. We’ve got each other’s back.”
The women met as teenagers in February 1973, in a player lounge in Florida. Martina spotted Chris playing backgammon. Then, the young Czech from a village near Prague, deep beyond the iron curtain, was in awe of the blonde, all-American sweetheart, already a top player.