Once in a great while, sport becomes very special. The timing, the scene, the athletes, even the fans, are in the precise alignment. Everyone involved senses they are part of something magical.
Today, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova produced one of those special moments. For almost three hours they dueled in the French Open final, their emotions on display for all the 16,500 enthralled fans in Stade Roland Garros.
When it was over, when Evert somehow had come up with one final burst to win the championship, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, the two friends and great rivals hugged each other and pushed backed tears of exhaustion and pride that both had every right to shed.
For Evert, her sixth French championship, a record for women, might have been her most gratifying. A year ago here, she was humiliated by Navratilova, 6-3, 6-1, in a final that lasted barely an hour. She wondered then if perhaps she could beat Navratilova ever again.
But at Wimbledon in July, Evert played a tough first set before losing. At the U.S. Open in September, she won the first set and felt she should have won the match. In February, she finally beat Navratilova in a Virginia Slims tournament in Florida.
But this was special. This was a Grand Slam final. And, from the beginning, on a chilly, windy afternoon, Evert sensed she could win.
"There were times when I started to get disheartened because I would get a lead and then it would slip away," she said. "Once, I might have given up mentally in a situation like that against her. But today I just kept telling myself to hang in because I sensed that she was nervous, too."
Navratilova, clearly nervous early in the match, kept coming back. She was down, 3-0, in the first set and came back to 3-all. She was down, 4-2 and 15-40, in the second set and came back to lead, 5-4. She had a set point in that game, but Evert saved it. Evert broke to lead, 6-5. Navratilova broke back and won the tie breaker.
Finally, during the memorable 67-minute final set, the two women took turns climbing from the mat.
"It was one of those matches that seemed like it would go on forever," Navratilova said. "It was a shame someone had to win, and I would say that even if I had won. In tennis, though, you don't play to a draw."
For a long time today it seemed that might be the best solution.
Twice, Evert served for the match. Twice, Navratilova broke. Throughout the third set, Evert had chances to build a comfortable lead and each time Navratilova came up with an answer.
In the end, though, just when it looked as if Evert was through, drained by the tension of two hours and 52 minutes of sustained drama, she produced the magic shots. It was Evert, down, 0-40, while serving at 5-all in the third, who made two near miraculous shots to save the game. And it was Evert who hit two winners, one crosscourt at 30-all, the other down the line on match point, to finally get the victory she wanted so much.
"When I hit the last winner down the line I was really proud of myself," she said. "I never gave up, and when I finally got to match point I went for a winner and I hit it. I had held my emotions in for so long that I really kind of let go."
She let go with a joyous shriek, her arms raised over her head, her shoulders slumping in relief, her eyes sparkling with happiness.
"That was about as dramatic a match as I can ever remember playing in," she said.
Navratilova agreed. "We've played so many great matches over the years but this being a Grand Slam final and all the tension it had, it had to be our best," she said.
That's saying a lot. They have played 65 times, almost to a draw, Navratilova winning 33, Evert 32.
From the beginning it was apparent there would be no repeat of last year's rout. Evert, saving game points each time, won the first three games. Navratilova argued several line calls, shook her fist after good shots, threw her head back and searched the cloudy sky for help each time she missed.
"I didn't play as well as I expected to," she said. "What I did today I did mostly on heart because my game wasn't at its best."
At the start, Evert's game was about as good as it gets. She consistently was hitting backhand winners, making Navratilova's every advance to the net an adventure.
Evert ended the first set with a second-serve ace, when Navratilova guessed down the middle and Evert served wide, followed by a crackling forehand crosscourt on set point. The score was 6-3 and the crowd, firmly behind Evert from the start, was ecstatic.
Navratilova began the second set by blowing a 40-0 lead and was broken when Evert raced in for a drop volley and slugged a forehand winner down the line.
But Navratilova hasn't won 11 Grand Slam titles without a good deal of grit. Behind and struggling on a day when she didn't have her best stuff, she willed herself back into the match.
Trailing, 4-2, she faced two break points at 15-40 that probably would have ended the match had Evert converted either. Navratilova responded with two superb serves.
She saved the game with one of her patented, lunging backhand volleys on Evert's backhand. Navratilova then broke for 4-4 with a crisp backhand winner.
A moment later, serving at 4-5, Evert faced set point. She took a deep breath and slammed a backhand past Navratilova.
Evert won the game with a solid forehand volley and, when she broke Navratilova with yet another wonderful forehand, the match was on her racket.
Not for long. Navratilova, attacking on every point, broke for 6-all. Navratilova won the tie breaker, 7-4, aided by a double fault by Evert. Now, the noise from the crowd was a murmur. It sensed Evert's chance had come and gone.
"After I lost the tie breaker I had a talk with myself," Evert said. "I said, 'Chris, stop holding back. Play loose. Play like you were playing in the first set when it was early and you were just hitting out.' "
Instead of fading, Evert again took control. She won the first game of the third set with a gorgeous drop shot and broke coming in behind a backhand to hit a tough volley that Navratilova ran down, but netted.
It was 2-0, Evert. Serving for 3-0, she had three game points. One of them produced the longest rally of the match, but none produced a point for Evert. She made two errors and Navratilova had the game.
Evert promptly broke back and had two points for 4-1. But, after five deuces, Navratilova won the game with a backhand winner. When she held at love for 3-all, Navratilova seemed in control.
Navratilova had a break point in the next game but netted a forehand passing shot, dropping her racket in disgust as the ball hit the tape. Evert saved the game with what seemed like her millionth winner, a forehand past Navratilova's futile lunge.
Evert broke again to lead, 5-3, running down a volley and whipping a forehand crosscourt. Navratilova, guarding the line, never moved.
For the second time, Evert served for the match. For the second time, Navratilova overpowered her, breaking at 15, snapping an overhead to end the game. Quickly, she held at love and just as quickly Evert faced 0-40 at 5-5.
"Right then, my chances to win the match on paper were zero," Evert said. "But I played some good shots."
"I wasn't thinking straight," Navratilova said. "I should have attacked her and I didn't."
Evert saved break point one when Navratilova hit a backhand long. She saved break point two with another perfect backhand. She saved break point three on the most remarkable point of the match. It ended with both women at the net, hitting reflex volleys at each other. Finally, Evert fought one off her body and it went right at Navratilova, who netted it.
Stunned, Navratilova stared at the ball for a moment. "Nine times out of 10, I win that point," she said. "Nine times out of 10."
A moment later, Evert held to lead, 6-5. "By then I was really working on myself to end it," she said.
Finally, she did. With the crowd gasping and screaming on every shot, Evert got to deuce, hitting a perfect forehand lob that Navratilova reached, but lobbed long.
Evert took one final look around and hit two shots for history. The first was a forehand that screeched crosscourt. Navratilova lunged, got her racket on the ball, but pushed it past the base line.
Roland Garros was bedlam. Navratilova missed a first serve. She hooked in a second. Evert returned, Navratilova chipped a backhand and came in, looking for Evert to go crosscourt with her backhand one more time.
"I had gone crosscourt so much I thought it was the right time to go down the line," Evert said.
In her dreams, she will always see that shot. Navratilova never had a chance. Evert scorched the ball two inches above the net and three feet inside the base line and the side line. For the 17th time she was a Grand Slam titlist. At 30, she had won the longest French Open women's final ever played in a match that will stand as one of the greatest ever played.
"If I had lost after having so many chances I would have been very depressed," Evert said. "But to come back after what happened last year and win this way, it's a great feeling."
Navratilova said, "It was one of the most incredible matches you can ever imagine. It had about everything."
Truly, it did. As the two women mounted the steps to the victory platform, the fans rose in tribute. Together, holding their trophies, Evert and Navratilova stood basking in one of those moments to be remembered and treasured for a lifetime.