This is the Era of Exaggeration in sports. Good is labeled great and great is labeled unparalleled.

And yet, 24 hours after Saturday's French Open women's final the consensus here remained the same: Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova played a tennis match of unparalleled greatness.

The true wonder of Evert's 2-hour 52-minute, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 7-5 victory goes beyond the brilliance of the tennis the two women produced. It even goes beyond the roller coaster each woman rode as the match ebbed and flowed.

What gave the match its unique flavor is the nature of this rivalry. Evert and Navratilova have traveled the world together for 11 years. They have been friends and champions. First, Evert dominated, then Navratilova took command.

And now, remarkably, just when it seemed the rivalry was over as a true competition, Evert has climbed back to make the two nearly equal again. She has won the last two Grand Slam titles and in 1985 she and Navratilova have split their four matches.

"She's playing the best tennis of her life," Navratilova said. "She's actually improved at the age of 30. It's nice to know you can still get better when you're 30."

Evert agreed. "I think we've made each other better," she said. "I made her improve her ground strokes and her discipline. Then, when she passed me, I became very conscious of physical fitness and strength.

"Right now, I think we're both at or right near our peak as players. That's why yesterday was so important to both of us. As many times as we've played, we're still trying to prove to each other that we're better."

What is perhaps most striking about this rivalry is what it means not only to the two women but to their sport. Evert admitted Thursday that she and Navratilova have talked about what might happen to women's tennis if they retired now. She said they have discussed how long they should continue playing, how long it might be before worthy successors would emerge.

Beyond that, each says the other's presence keeps her going.

"I think it's very hard to stay interested if you're winning easily all the time," Evert said. "You need something to work for. Just winning and winning and winning easily can get boring after a while."

Without Evert, Navratilova might have become bored long ago. Without Navratilova, Evert might have retired by now. Now, Evert, who never thought she would still be playing at 30 -- much less playing better than ever -- talks about playing another year after this one.

Navratilova, 28, talks about the two of them exiting the game together. "I hope Chris hangs around for another couple of years," she said, moments after suffering a major disappointment at Evert's hands. "The game wouldn't be the same without her. I'm sure whenever she retires, I'll follow shortly. The game won't be the same for me without her."

Certainly the game never will be the same when these two women leave. Evert has won 17 Grand Slam titles; Navratilova has won 11. Most of the records Evert doesn't hold were broken by Navratilova. They have played 65 times and Navratilova has won 33, Evert 32.

"This comes at an interesting time for me," Evert said of her victory here. "I have thought about retirement, whether to play just this year or play another year. This kind of thing will make the rest of the year more fun and more exciting for me."

It should also give Navratilova something to shoot for. After winning six straight Grand Slam titles in 1983 and 1984, she has now lost the last two. For the first time since 1982, Evert is close behind her for the No. 1 spot on the women's computer.

More important, though, is the tennis the two women have produced. Their three-set final at the U.S. Open in September was a superb match, but it paled in comparison to Saturday's. The fact that each wants to beat the other so badly is a tribute to their competitiveness as individuals and to the respect each has for the other after so many years.

"It was the kind of match where you knew the winner was going to be the happiest person in the world and the loser the saddest," Evert said today from London. "It's amazing what winning a match like that does for you. I slept two hours last night and I've been working around our house all day. I don't feel a bit tired, I feel great."

Evert admitted that Saturday was the most emotional she had been in a Grand Slam final. In fact, it was probably her most emotional match since the 1980 U.S. Open semifinal against Tracy Austin. "I honestly can't remember the last time I was that emotional," Evert said.

The similarity is this: both times Evert had gone a long time without beating the opponent and found herself in a major tournament at a moment in her career when people were wondering whether she could beat the woman (in a major) ever again.

Navratilova, after winning the women's doubles here today with Pam Shriver (their eighth straight Grand Slam title and 99th straight match victory) took some consolation in the greatness of Saturday's match.

"I remember Billie Jean King lost to Margaret Court in the final here years ago, 11-9, and years later people were still talking to her about the match," she said. "I suppose years from now I'll say to myself, 'Oh my God, you should have won that match,' but I'm glad I was part of something people will remember a long time."

People will remember Evert-Navratilova long after the two women stop playing. They will remember this match, they will remember the length of the rivalry and the great play and the graciousness of the two women.

"I'm proud I've been part of something like that," Evert said today. "I feel lucky that I've had rivalries like the one I had with Billie Jean and with Evonne (Goolagong) and finally Martina.

"I still remember the first time I played her. It was in Akron, Ohio (in 1973). I was 17 and she was 15. I had never heard of her and I walked on court and there was this little overweight girl. She was probably 25 pounds overweight, really sort of fat.

"But she was strong. I had trouble with her serve and we ended up in a tie breaker in the first set before I won, 7-6, 6-1. But I was shocked by her. I thought then, 'If this girl ever gets into shape we're all in trouble.' "

They said that about Navratilova for years, until in 1981, several years after her defection from Czechoslovakia, she began to reach her potential. If she hadn't done that, Evert might have 25 Grand Slam titles. She also might be retired. And women's tennis certainly would not be the same.

"No one is bigger than the game," Evert said. "It went on without Court, without Billie Jean. It will go on when Martina and I retire. But I know our rivalry has made tennis a better game. That makes me feel good."