35-year rewind: Evert reflects on her final Grand Slam triumph

 - Danielle Rossingh

The seven-time Roland-Garros champion says her 1986 title run in Paris extended her career by three years

Chris Evert Roland Garros 1986© Didier Chicot/FFT

Chris Evert’s unexpected win over her long-time rival Martina Navratilova in the 1986 Roland-Garros final added three more years to the American’s long and storied career.

“Chrissie v Martina” was a rivalry that helped put women’s tennis on the map in the 1970s and the 1980s. The pair, firm friends off the court, had the greatest rivalry in tennis, playing each other 80 times. Sixty of their matches were in finals.

Evert won 157 titles, including 18 Grand Slam singles championships. From 1975 to 1986, she occupied either the No.1 or No.2 spot in the world rankings.

But of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles, one of them stands out for a particular reason; her 1986 Roland-Garros, when she upset her nemesis Navratilova 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

“I think the beauty of it was that it was an upset, I'd beaten Martina,” Evert told rolandgarros.com in an interview by phone from her home in Florida.

“Everybody had counted me out, I think, as far as winning another Grand Slam, that was the consensus. Martina was pretty dominant around those years. So the nice thing was just kind of surprising myself that I could still win a Grand Slam at that late age.”

Evert was 31 at the time and her win over Navratilova proved to be the last of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles, an Open era record at the time before Navratilova matched it and Steffi Graf and then Serena Williams surpassed it.

Ultra-consistent and accurate from the baseline, Evert ruled on the red clay of Roland-Garros. The American won 125 straight matches on the surface between 1973 and 1979 and ended up with seven crowns on Parisian clay Her record in the French capital was only eclipsed by Rafael Nadal in 2013. 

Evert said the seeds of her 1986 win were sown in the final the previous year, when she had beaten Navratilova in a Grand Slam for the first time in three years.

“That ‘85 win sort of opened up the door,” she recalls. “I regained my confidence, because I'd lost to her like 13 times in a row and then I beat her at Miami and then I beat her in ‘85 at the French. Then the next year I beat her at the French and I just felt like I could beat her. The confidence was there.”

Beating Navratilova in Paris would prolong Evert’s career.

“That was also the year I think Steffi (Graf) was really starting to come up. People definitely were (saying)... Martina was dominant and the newcomers are coming up and Chrissie had had her heyday.

“I think that win, winning a Grand Slam, propelled me to play three more years, I played three more years. I wanted to milk it as long as I could.”

When players win Grand Slam titles later in their careers, they tend to think they can win another one. For Evert, though, realism was already sinking in.

“After that, it was an uphill battle because Steffi and then Monica (Seles) really were starting to play well and they had nothing to lose and they were starting to beat Martina and I,” she said.

The now 66-year-old American looks back on all her achievements with pride, from her seven Roland-Garros titles, to her consistency and above all, the fact that she was able to stay at the top for so long. She reached the semi-finals of the US Open on her Grand Slam debut, and also reached the last four at Wimbledon in her final year in 1989.

And she is happy that she was able to retire on her own terms, still at the top.

“What I'm (most) proud of is I started out on the tour No.4 in the world and I was like 16, 17 and I never went out of the top four in all my 18 years,” she said. “And I ended up as No.4 in the world.

“So it was like, OK, I can deal with getting to the semis and maybe, gosh, that'd be great if I got to the finals but getting to the semis of these Grand Slams and stuff... I didn't really want to start losing first and second round. So I retired at the time that was good for me.”