LONDON -- Coming soon to a theater near you, the sequel you've been waiting for. Steven Spielberg finally presents: "Ahead to the Future," in which a high school girl who dreams of becoming No. 1 in women's tennis teams up with a goofy professor who's invented a nuclear-powered car that can travel through time and space. The usual adventures occur.
The year: 2007.
The setting: The All England Lawn Tennis Club.
The situation: The final match of the women's draw at Wimbledon.
The players: (Are you kidding?)
For the 33rd year in a row, Chris (The Groundstroking Grandma) Evert-Lloyd-Connors- Lendl-Cruise and Martina (It Ain't Ova 'Til It's Ova) Navratilova are meeting in a semifinal or final of a Grand Slam event. "Thank God Steffi Graf finally retired in 2001 so Chris and Martina could go back to playing finals again," said England's Queen Diana, who first watched them play when she was teaching nursery school. "Chuck and I always liked them best."
This year, they will actually play the match, unlike the five-year period between 2002 and 2006 when they simply flipped a coin to determine which woman would claim the appropriate national championship, the brand new car, the cordless phone and the nuclear warhead that went with it.
"We each had so many cars and warheads that it seemed a waste of time and effort to actually play for another one -- until they threw in the cordless phone. You can never have too many cordless phones," Navratilova wrote in her third autobiography, "Me and My Shadow: A Guide to Successful Doubles."
A crowd of 12,400 people -- flown in from the outer banks of the Maldive Islands and said to be the last few on earth who hadn't seen these two play -- will attend the 315th meeting between these long-long-longtime giants of women's tennis.
The Evert-Navratilova rivalry, which some have likened to the French and Indian Wars (and others have compared it to prolonged root canal work) once again stands even. Each woman has won 157 times. After losing steadily to Navratilova in the late 1990s -- when Evert suddenly changed tactics and began playing left-handed for reasons that are still unclear -- Evert is on a hot streak lately. She has beaten Navratilova 31 straight times, on all kinds of surfaces including grass, clay, Farberware, carpet, bathroom tile and non-stick spray-on Pam.
"I don't think I've reached my peak yet as a player," the 52-year-old Evert said from the set of her most recent network television special, "The Golden Girls Are Senile," where she plays Betty White's mother.
Navratilova, however, has disputed 27 of those recent losses, all of which were officially recorded as defaults. "I know it seems like Chris and I meet in the final of every tournament," Navratilova, 50, said from inside the bank vault in Dallas where she lives. "But I don't think it was fair to count those 27 as losses considering I wasn't even at those tournaments. They came in the two years I'd left the tour to play for the Cowboys. Of course I'm flattered that people thought enough of my tennis to assume I'd made all those finals."
As with all Evert-Navratilova finals, this one will be crowded in the friends booth. Evert's 16-year-old son, Jimbo; his girlfriend, Ursula Becker, the daughter of Steffi Graf and Boris Becker; Andy The Hunk, Judy Nelson, Renee Richards, John and Gabriela Sabatini-Lloyd and Pam Shriver, the CBS anchorwoman who never reached the final here in 26 tries . . .
The truth is, theirs is the most familiar rivalry in sports. They've played 73 times -- more times than USC-UCLA. Martina leads, 39-34, with this most recent victory, Thursday's three-setter on Centre Court. Over the years they have engaged in some of the greatest matches in the history of women's tennis, consistently elevating the level of each other's game. They're as inextricably tied to each other as peanut butter and jelly -- each can stand on her own, but they're magic in combination.
Chris and Martina have crossed the bridge from mutual respect to the understanding that they somehow define each other, and, like Bird and Magic, they have talked about the poetry of retiring together rather than pressing ever onward, meaninglessly, alone. And though they have strikingly different personalities -- Chris being guarded off court and chilly on, while Martina is gregarious and immediately emotional -- they have become deep, dear friends, socializing often. (In fact, Martina introduced Chris to Chris' current beau in Aspen, Colo., when Martina invited her there for a ski holiday last New Year's.)
They concede the inevitability of the drawing of the curtain, but they don't enjoy contemplating life without the other on tour. "If Martina wasn't playing," Chris said, "I wouldn't have anybody to talk to in the locker room. All these younger players say we don't talk to them. Martina's the only friend I have. No, I'm just kidding." Half-kidding anyway. Chris got a dreamy look on her face and said, "We've been together for so long, we've played so many matches; we've seen other players come and go, but we've been the constants. It's almost like she's family now."
Martina then plumbed the depth of their mutual admiration, admitting that there would be "a definite void" if she continued to play after Chris retired. Emotion comes more readily to Martina, but listen to her describe her feelings at the end of this match: "I had tears in my eyes, and it wasn't for me winning, it was for Chris losing. I really wished that she could win this tournament one more time. I would have been almost as happy if she could win it as I am if I win it."
The generous spirit of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova series defines the highest plateau of sports, and describes the best aspects of competition: They inspire each other to new heights while at the same time growing closer together in mutual respect and friendship. The rivalry is a light that can guide us, and the rivals themselves are rare jewels to treasure.