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Rivalry Becomes War of Words

July 06, 2001|MIKE PENNER

It was billed as the rivalry to end all rivalries, except one, because it is now apparent that Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova will play on into eternity, into the next life, the next dimension, onto some high-stakes exhibition in a parallel universe--bleachers filled with three-headed tennis junkies screaming for a third set.

This week at Wimbledon, Evert and Navratilova were matched again in something resembling a sequel to the old "Saturday Night Live" skit that had Evert going to the ends of the earth, even scaling a mountain peak, to get away from her forever hovering archrival, never to any avail.

Tuesday, Evert was at Center Court to provide television commentary for the Jennifer Capriati-Serena Williams quarterfinal.

So was Navratilova.

Evert, working for NBC, marveled that her old foil was still knocking forehands around on the lawn, playing her way into the women's doubles quarterfinals.

"Martina, at 44, is still one of the best doubles players out there," Evert said. "Without a doubt."

But for Navratilova, doubles at Wimbledon was just a cardiovascular workout between broadcasting assignments for TNT. By the time Capriati and Williams were ready to step out for their quarterfinal, Navratilova was suited up with headset and microphone, same gear as Evert, commenting on the same match to be aired the same day by another network.

In the broadcast booth, they match up pretty much the same way they did on the court.

Evert is cool and poised, never breaking a sweat as she mixes it up from the back--a sharp critique here, a subtle and glib aside there. Finesse is her game, and she is very easy on the ear.

Navratilova is very much the technician, focused on the details, such as wind direction and a player's success rate from the far service court. Somewhat rough around the edges, she's a tireless and relentless hard worker, never afraid to roll up her sleeves.

Typical was how they handled the developing story of Williams' physical condition, which worsened as the match progressed as Williams lost seven consecutive games during the second and third sets.

Evert took a detached, almost skeptical view of the situation.

"I'm sure she has an upset stomach," Evert observed, "but she was getting run all over the court. She's exhausted." And, after Capriati rallied for the three-set victory, Evert quipped, "To have [squandered] chances like that in the second set would make anybody sick."

Navratilova played it as hard news--and was the reporter with the scoop. She beat NBC to the news by revealing Williams' "bellyache" with the score tied, 5-5, in the first set. NBC's tandem of Ted Robinson and Evert first made mention of Williams' upset stomach midway through the second set.

"I found out in the locker room," Navratilova announced, prompting TNT play-by-play broadcaster Mary Carillo to underscore, "You might be the first person in England to know about the bellyache."

Game, Navratilova.

But, not content with simple victory, she moved in for the rout. During the fourth game of the second set, Carillo touted Navratilova's scoop again, informing viewers that "Martina found out just minutes before" the match.

No, Navratilova corrected, "I found out yesterday."

Tiebreaker, Carillo

Evert rallied on style points, spraying around candid observations on players who rush play in between points (very "annoying"), Williams' track record in big matches ("Serena has choked a few matches in her career") and Capriati's rare display of fist-pumping emotion in the third set ("Is that Jimmy Connors or Jennifer Capriati out there?").

But the winner on this day was TNT because it had Carillo, ever informed, opinionated and equally adept in the role of play-by-play commentator or color analyst. If you had to draw up "dream-team" broadcasting crews for tennis, you'd pair Dick Enberg with John McEnroe on the men's side and Carillo with Carillo on the women's.

As Williams left the court for a "bathroom break" during the third set, Carillo lent some badly needed perspective to an issue too many in media tip-toe around.

Carillo said, "You know, the pity of this whole moment here is that the Williams sisters, and especially their father, say so many things that people don't believe any of this. They're saying, 'What's the deal here?'

"Everything Richard Williams says, I mean, let's face it, we all have to take it with a 500-pound grain of salt. The sisters often have to kind of mop up after him. . . . Now these fans, an awful lot of them are thinking, 'This is gamesmanship.' It's not. That kid is sick."

Next, Radiohead to Perform 'Kid A-Rod'

Now, about TNT's obsession with Andy Roddick, an 18-year-old kid who hasn't won much of anything yet, but is given superstar treatment because--I can only guess here--he's photogenic, he hits hard, he wears his cap backward when he plays and . . . oh, right . . . he's American.

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