Martina Navratilova remembers the first time she played Chris Evert Lloyd--a decade ago, in Akron, Ohio. "I played in the first round and I lost, 7-6, 6-3 (5-4 in the tie breaker)," she said.
She was 16 years old. "I was excited when Chris even looked at me and smiled and said hello," she said. "I was mesmerized. I was in total awe of all these players."
Evert remembers, "She was real aggressive, real emotional and she screamed at herself all the time."
They meet again Saturday, their 54th encounter, in the final of the U.S. Open. Evert is the defending champion and No. 2 seed. Six times she has won the tournament that Navratilova has never been able to call her own. But Navratilova, who is now the one in women's tennis, has won 20 of their last 27 matches, although Evert leads the series, 30-23.
Navratilova is no longer mesmerized, no longer in awe. Her skills are beyond dispute. The only thing that remains to be seen, Evert suggested pointedly, is whether emotions can "still be the vulnerable part of her if anyone gets close enough in a match."
The gap between Navratilova and Evert and the rest of women's tennis was never more evident than it was today. Navratilova, the No. 1 seed, lost last year to Pam Shriver in the quarterfinals; today, she was the winner with a 6-2, 6-1, 55-minute seminar in abject domination.
Shriver managed only three points off Navratilova's serve in the second set. Later, she was asked if her friend and doubles partner can get any better. "Oh, God, I hope not," she replied.
Evert was a bit more lax, beating Jo Durie, 6-4, 6-4, in 75 minutes. She wasted two match points in the eighth game, an unEvertlike thing to do, but held at love when she served for it again. Durie was unduly generous, giving Evert untold numbers of easy points as her backhand approach failed her repeatedly and her forehand volleys caught the net. "I missed when I shouldn't have," she said, "and Chris doesn't miss."
Navratilova is unlikely to be so kind. The question that will be answered Saturday for Evert, perhaps forever, is just how big of a gap there is between them. "I am curious to see what kind of tennis I can play," she said.
So, too, is Bill Scanlon, the 16th men's seed, who will meet Jimmy Connors, the third seed and defending champion, in one semifinal Saturday. Scanlon earlier ousted No. 1 John McEnroe. In the other semifinal, No. 2 Ivan Lendl will play ninth-seeded Jimmy Arias, an upset winner over No. 4 Yannick Noah in Thursday's quarterfinals. The men's final is Sunday.
Navratilova gave a classic demonstration today of the kind of tennis she can play. She was admittedly jittery at first. Although she broke in the first game, she fell behind, 0-40, in the third and was broken for only the third time in the tournament (she still has not lost a set). Shriver was returning well. Navratilova was making unaccustomed errors. Shriver had her chance to make it a match but fumbled it.
Serving at 2-2, Shriver had a game point and hit a backhand volley long. Navratilova hit a sizzling backhand return winner (one of 11) for break point. Shriver applied herself and saved it, only to hit an overhead long. Another backhand return at Shriver's feet gave Navratilova the break.
"Those are the positions you want to try to get her in," Shriver said. "I think if I hold serve to lead, 3-2, it might be different because then I can start to play on her mind."
Navratilova said she didn't think about last year's stunning--and seemingly inexplicable--loss when she was two points from winning until "people started getting excited when Pam pulled it to 2-all. They got me all pumped up. If she had started beating me, I may have started thinking about it. The way I played I never gave her a chance."
"Last year, it was a shock," Shriver said. "I thought she was coming into it very well. She won the Canadian and then after I beat her, I find out she had some disease (toxoplasmosis, which affects the muscles). This year, I don't think she had any disease. And if she comes in here and says she has something, I'll kill her."
Navratilova chased down lobs and hit winners on the run. She overpowered her with her serve (making 72.5 percent of first serves) and killed her softly with cross-court passing shots. She backpedaled into the sun and reached for overheads that others would not reach, much less place in the corners. She broke Shriver at love in the third game of the second set, in the fifth and in the seventh.
This time, when Navratilova was two points from victory, no weakness set in. Shriver saved two match points with strong serves to Navratilova's backhand. But a backhand return winner down the line gave Navratilova a third and she jumped up and down like a kid on a pogo stick. Shriver netted a backhand and her fourth loss of the year to Navratilova was history. "I've never lost to anyone as consistently except Tracy (Austin), when I was 12," she said. "And I don't count that."
Later, Navratilova and Shriver defeated Mima Jausovec and Kathy Jordan, 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the women's doubles final.
Durie, the 14th seed, was the only one who had never played an Open semifinal, never played on the Stadium Court. She found it and her task "quite vast." The enormity of it may have been the source of her errors (10 forehand, 16 backhand).
She had a chance in the second game of the second set as Evert wavered, double-faulting on her second game point. Durie sliced a backhand return for a winner (one of her few all day) and her second break point. Evert served to her backhand, a ball Durie thought was long and didn't play. Evert went on to hold.
"I thought the ball was out, but obviously the umpire didn't think so, so I just got on with it," Durie said. "I wasn't going to gripe about it."
Evert frittered away a 5-1 lead, just as she frittered a 3-0 lead away against Hana Mandlikova in the quarterfinals. "I should have clinched it right away and I always get mad at myself because I should have wrapped it up," she said. "I could have been a little sharper and ended it but I let her back into the match."
She says she has a different approach when she plays Navratilova, and she will need one.
"I have difficulty playing players who are streaky, only because a Hana or Jo Durie--their standard is that they'll hit two or three good shots and then they'll hit two or three in the bottom of the net," she said. "It's hard to get a rhythm. With Martina, I know she's going to be consistent and hit some great shots and that hopefully will lift the level of my game."
Navratilova was asked about the ending of their first match so many years ago. "I don't remember what happened," she said, smiling. "She probably passed me at the net."
Most people feel Navratilova has passed Evert by, that her strength is too much for Evert's toughness.
Durie said she is putting her money on Navratilova. Shriver said, "I wouldn't want my house on somebody else than Martina."
"I'd probably put my three houses on it," Evert said, laughing, subtly establishing her own record.
"I just hope I can put my best game on the line."
And as everyone knows, it is a mental one.