On this day in tennis in 1981, Chris Evert handed Martina Navratilova a brutal double-bagel that many claim was responsible for shifting the tide in their epic rivalry
- 26 Apr 2021
What exactly happened on that day
On this day, April 26, 1981, in the final of the Amelia Island Open, Chris Evert double-bageled her rival, Martina Navratilova, in just 54 minutes. It was the 41st episode of their great rivalry, and later proved to be a turning point: the left-hander, extremely disappointed after this humiliation, would become stronger than ever and win 31 of their future 39 encounters.
Chris Evert was born in 1954 in Florida. Coached by her father, she developed a game based on consistency, keeping her opponents away from the net with her deep groundstrokes, and punishing them with great passing shots if they were to approach the net carelessly. She obtained her first remarkable result at the age of 16, reaching the semi-final at the US Open (defeated by world No 1, Billie Jean King, 6-3, 6-2). In 1973, at the age of 18, she finished runner-up at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, beaten by the two best players in the world, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court. In 1974, she eventually claimed her first and second Grand Slam titles, prevailing against Olga Morozova in both the Roland-Garros and the Wimbledon final.
Evert finished the year as world No 2, winning no less than 16 tournaments, and gaining media exposure – wanted or otherwise – by starting a romance with Jimmy Connors. In 1975, she continued her winning streak on clay, triumphing at Roland-Garros for the second time, defeating her future biggest rival Martina Navratilova (2-6, 6-2, 6-1) in the final. Evert also won the US Open, which was played on clay for the first time (defeating Evonne Goolagong in the final, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2).
The American became the first world No 1 of the newly established WTA rankings, and she held that spot without interruption until 1979. In 1981, although her dominance was challenged by Navratilova and Tracy Austin, she had accumulated 11 Grand Slam titles and reached the final of every major tournament she played since her semi-final loss at Wimbledon in 1975. Evert was almost unbeatable on clay, and she compiled an incredible 125-match winning streak on red dirt between 1973 and 1979. In April 1981, she was world No 1, having reclaimed the spot from Tracy Austin in November 1980.
In 1981, Martina Navratilova, born in 1956, was one of three contenders for the world No 1 spot, exchanging the position regularly with her greatest rival, Chris Evert. The Czech had turned pro in 1975, reaching the finals at both the Australian Open (defeated by Evonne Goolagong, 6-3, 6-2) and Roland-Garros (lost to Evert, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1). In the following years, she established herself in the top 4, winning 22 tournaments, but it was not until 1978 that she finally claimed her first major title at Wimbledon (defeating Evert in the final, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5). Shortly after, she became world No 1 for the first time, but at the US Open, she was eliminated in the semi-finals by 16-year old Pam Shriver (7-6, 7-6). The following year, she defended her title at the All England Club (defeating Evert, 6-4, 6-4), but at the US Open, she was once again stopped in the semi-final round by a young rival, Tracy Austin (7-5, 7-5). In 1980, she won 11 tournaments on the Tour, but her Grand Slam results were disappointing, and she finished the year as world No 3, behind Evert and Austin. At the time, she was in the process of becoming an American citizen, and was also criticized for her lack of fitness and her affinity for fast foods.
The Amelia Island women’s tournament was established in 1980. Held in the spring on American green clay (also known as Har-Tru), it was already a prestigious event, and its first edition had been won by one of the biggest stars on the Tour, Martina Navratilova.
In 1981, the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was well-established. The two women had faced off 40 times already, and overall, “Chrissie” led by 27 to 13, but on clay, she had won all their six encounters. Evert was the heavy favourite before their final clash in Amelia Island on April 26, 1981.
When she entered the court, the speaker called Evert “a clay-court virtuoso”, as her record on clay since May 1973 was 174-1. She had won the three editions of the US Open played on American clay (1975-1977) and Roland-Garros four times, even though she had skipped the event on three occasions (1976-1978).
She soon proved the speaker right. Navratilova was left clueless by Evert’s consistency, to the point where she wasn’t even able to win a single game. “Chrissie has her Bagel-Party face on,” said Bud Collins, commentating the match on TV, near the end of the first set. In front of an amazed audience, Evert gave the defending champion a double bagel, 6-0, 6-0, in 54 minutes.
‘When they introduced Chris, they said she was a virtuoso on clay. She showed them they were right,” said Navratilova to the crowd, according to The New York Times. ”I’m sorry I didn’t do much better. I have a check here for $16,000, and I feel like I should give half of it back to you.”
Before giving the microphone to her opponent, Navratilova finished her speech with a touch of humor:
“I hope when I come back here, Chrissie might be pregnant,” she said, referring to Evert’s recent marriage with John Lloyd.
According to Eurosport, there was another explanation for Navratilova’s poor performance: the night before, having met the former basketball player Nancy Lieberman, she went out until 6 A.M. while the final was scheduled at noon.
What happened next
Navratilova’s shocking loss to Evert in Amelia Island would prove to be a turning point in her career, mainly due to her encounter with Nancy Lieberman, who would help her bounce back from this humiliation.
“Nancy Lieberman had a positive impact on Martina’s transformation,” Evert would explain in a recent interview with Tennis Majors. “She just became an Olympic athlete at that point and started going to the gym, doing weights, playing basketball, doing more cardio, doing more cross-fitness. I think for two and a half years I didn’t beat her.”
Although Evert’s recollection is not completely true, as she defeated Navratilova in Sydney, in 1981, and at the 1982 Australian Open, she would suffer 13 consecutive losses to the southpaw between 1982 and 1985. At the end of the rivalry, Navratilova would lead, 43-37. By the end of their careers, the two rivals would each hold a total of 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
The new Navratilova, who would become an American citizen later in 1981, would dominate the game until the rise of Steffi Graf in 1987, setting a record of 332 weeks as world No 1 (a record that would be beaten by Graf in 1996).