The XX Factor

Champions in Autumn

Even the most unguarded professional athletes must hold things back during their careers. Whether they’re protecting their image in pursuit of endorsements or keeping a secret for the sake of competitive advantage, there are always things that are better left unsaid. But after retirement, what if two great rivals got together and talked honestly about their years in the spotlight? And what if a camera crew tagged along and captured them walking on a deserted beach, and jogging, and riding bikes, and going for drives in a cool Mercedes convertible? If that happened, it would be awesome .

Unmatched , which debuted on ESPN Sept. 14, is the story of tennis greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and it explores the notion that “sometimes your best friend can be your biggest foe.” Over the course of 16 years, Evert and Navratilova played 80 matches-60 of which were finals, 14 of them Grand Slam finals-and yet they managed to forge a friendship that has endured for 30 years. (As a point of comparison, the Williams sisters have played 23 times; Borg and McEnroe faced off 14 times.) The film treads odd territory for a documentary made for a sports network-there’s a lot of gushy and sincere-seeming talk about feelings-but it also provides a clear-eyed look at the early days of women’s pro tennis.

In 1973, when they first faced each other across the net, the women’s pro tour was in its infancy-the women were still sparring with the USLTA, the sport’s ruling body, and conditions were Spartan. (Grace Lichtenstein’s wonderful book A Long Way Baby: Behind the Scenes in Women’s Pro Tennis notes that many of the players would stay in strangers’ houses when they were on tour-they couldn’t afford to stay in hotels.) In the movie, Evert and Navratilova shake their heads in disbelief recalling how different conditions were back then-players didn’t travel with coaches, or anyone else for that matter; they knew little about conditioning; the great rivals used to warm up together and eat together, even before Grand Slam finals.

In individual sports, especially tournament sports like tennis, the superstars are always isolated-since they are endlessly traveling, it’s hard to make “outside” friends, and few other competitors are still around by the end of the week. So it must have been a huge relief for two perennial finalists to enjoy each other’s company, but it was also a strain. Both of them talk about the complicated emotions they experienced after a big win-how could the winner be happy when her friend was so sad?-and at times, each wondered if the other was using their friendship to gain a mental advantage.

It’s easy to forget that so many superstar athletes are little more than kids when the spotlight burns brightest. Seeing these middle-aged women looking back on their younger selves and calmly talking about their personal and professional evolution is inspiring. It’ll do the ESPN audience a world of good to see that even after all those on-court battles, these women love each other and are happy to share that with the world.

(I talked about Unmatched with Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca on the Sept. 13 Hang Up and Listen podcast .)