Every Grand Slam tournament, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova spend two weeks explaining that the end of their domination of women's tennis is near, other players are catching up and anything can happen. But not in this French Open, as today the two again advanced to Saturday's final.
Helena Sukova played the match of her life against Navratilova. She served. She volleyed. She returned. She used her height to reach unreachable balls. She was superb. She lost, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
Hana Mandlikova jammed the pinky on her right hand Monday in her upset victory over Steffi Graf. She fell on it again today, sprained it and was put out of her misery by Evert, 6-1, 6-1, in 73 minutes.
"I was really psyched up for this match," Evert said. "She had beaten me the last two times we played, and that gave me a little more incentive than usual."
On her off days, Evert radiates intensity. Beat her twice in a row -- "in major championships," as she pointed out -- and you had better be ready to duck.
"My finger was really hurting, which is unfortunate," Mandlikova said. "But she played a great match. I don't know if it would have been different if I hadn't been hurting."
Probably not, not the way Evert was cracking the ball. She was up, 3-1, in the first set when Mandlikova dove for an Evert winner and jammed the pinky again. Mandlikova took an injury timeout, had the trainer spray the finger and played on. She did not play poorly, either. Evert just never gave her any room for error.
And so, on Saturday, for the 69th time, Evert and Navratilova will walk to center court and face each other. The last time they met in Roland Garros Stadium, one year ago, they produced one of the most memorable women's matches ever played, with Evert finally winning, 7-5, in the third set. This will be her 33rd Grand Slam final; she has won 17. For Navratilova, this will be Grand Slam final No. 20; she has won 13.
Today, Sukova did give Navratilova a scare. She came out flying and took a 3-0 lead. Sukova did what one must to have a chance against Navratilova: She was aggressive. "Every chance I have," she said, "I'm going to come in."
At 6 feet 3, Sukova is an imposing figure at the net. Time and again, Navratilova hit what seemed to be good shots only to have Sukova lunge and hit winners. "I practiced with Coach Mike Estep coming to net a lot the last two days," Navratilova said. "But he's not close to being 6-3. She really puts pressure on you because of that size."
It was Sukova, in the 1984 Australian Open semifinals, who ended Navratilova's record 74-match winning streak. That is the only time in 14 meetings she has beaten Navratilova. Today, she may have been better than she was in her victory.
"I thought so," Navratilova said. "I mean, nothing was easy. In the second set, I was really getting frustrated. I would break, she would break back. I thought, 'My God, you can lose this match.' I wasn't playing badly, but I was definitely having a hard time."
The players had been forced to take a 23-minute break in the first set with Sukova leading, 5-4, because of a cold rain that swept in and out of the stadium all day.
The break seemed to help Sukova. She served out the set, Navratilova missing a backhand passing shot wide on set point. It was the first set Navratilova had lost in the tournament.
Navratilova kept working her way into the match. She began chipping returns low to make her tall opponent bend for shots. She began attacking Sukova's second serve.
Twice in the second set, Navratilova broke. Twice, Sukova broke back. "I was returning as well as I ever have," Sukova said. "I had chances to win it in the second set. The two service games I lost, I was ahead, 30-0, and, 40-15. . . . It probably shouldn't have even gone into the tie breaker."
But it did after Navratilova, serving for the set at 5-3, double faulted at 30-15 and then watched Sukova crack two winners. "I'm serving for the set and I double fault, I mean, geez," Navratilova said. "I wasn't even going for a big first serve and I couldn't get the ball in."
But she was doing a lot of other things well, and that got her into the tie breaker and, more important, won her the tie breaker. Sukova took a 4-3 lead in the tie breaker with a flicked forehand volley, made two errors to fall behind, 5-4, then watched as Navratilova smacked two winners -- a crackling forehand cross court and a lovely lob that evaded Sukova's reach.
That was the set. Sukova was on the defensive throughout the third set. She got out of 0-30 games the first two times she served, but the third time, Navratilova broke, with another forehand and a chipped forehand return that Sukova couldn't scoop over the net.
That was all the lead Navratilova needed. Sukova didn't win another game. "I was three points from beating her," Sukova said. "I couldn't be more disappointed."
Her feeling of letting an opportunity slip away was in marked contrast to Mandlikova, who seemed to understand that on this day Evert wasn't going to be beaten. The best example of her domination came with Evert up, 2-1, in the second set. Mandlikova played a superb game, hitting seven winners. But each time, Evert answered with one of her own and finally broke with yet another backhand winner.
Minutes later, Mandlikova extended her left hand in congratulations, unable to shake with the right.
"When I get to a Grand Slam final," Evert said, "I like to play Martina because if I beat her, it means the most. I expect her to be there."
And Navratilova expects Evert to be there. Usually, they are right.