Not everybody can navigate a strong friendship and a great on-court rivalry like Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert did. But even their relationship went through some testing times. Now in their 50’s, their legacy is defined as much by their remarkable friendship as it is by the number of trophies in their cabinets.
The tennis circuit is often described as a lonely place. On occasions, between the practice sessions, the waiting in the locker rooms and the globe-trotting together as compatriots, friendships do blossom.
But not all friendships can survive the intense competition and media glare. Pete Sampras and Jim Courier were very good friends once upon a time. They used to play golf, hang out and joke around in the locker room. But as the battles moved away from the practice court to the Centre Court, they found it hard to separate the off-court friendship from their on-court rivalry. Before the 1993 Wimbledon final, Sampras had this to say, “It’s tough. We don’t really talk. It’s pretty competitive.”
Even with one’s own sibling, it may be hard to see someone so close to you live your dream before you yourself have the chance to. When Venus Williams burst on to the scene in 1997 and marched to the US Open finals, it was given that she would win a grand slam title soon. But when younger sister Serena became the first from the family to triumph at a grand slam (at the US Open in 1999), this is how Sports Illustrated described her reaction – “Venus Williams watched the whole scene from the courtside player’s guest box with her parents, and when she saw her younger sister take the prize she looked on with a sullen, envious expression, upset that she couldn’t be out there.” Serena said, “I’ve never seen her that down before.”
Since then, though, Venus has played the role of protective big sister to the hilt, cheering Serena on to each of her victories even as Serena beat Venus for several of them.
It may or may not be a coincidence then that several top players have close friends on the circuit who are not in the same league as them, tennis-wise. Steffi Graf’s best friend on the circuit was Rennae Stubbs, an Australian who only peaked at number 64 in the singles. Roger Federer continues to remain close friends with compatriot Yves
Allegro, who peaked at number 32 in singles way back in 2004.
In this context, it would be interesting to see how the friendship between Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka develops in the coming years. The two have been close friends since their junior days; both won a junior grand slam singles title and both were tipped to be future champions. But it was Wozniacki who made the big leap first, reaching her first grand slam final at the US Open in 2009 and then becoming world number one, even as Azarenka, a year older, struggled with her volatile temperament.
Wozniacki has now seen Azarenka race past her by winning the Australian Open title last month and has dropped to number four in the rankings while it’s Azarenka who sits pretty atop the rankings. Martina Navratilova argued that the next big rivalry in women’s tennis will likely be between Petra Kvitova and Azarenka.
Sooner or later, Wozniacki may find it hard not to begrudge Azarenka her success, especially if she fails to get the grand slam monkey off her back. Azarenka has the grand slam title and the number one ranking and if she keeps it up, the endorsement dollars will also shift away from the Dane into Azarenka’s pockets.
In another recent case, Mardy Fish overtook best friend Andy Roddick as the top-ranked American player last year. But Roddick has already had his time at the top – having been world number one and US Open champion. Fish’s ascent has come when the two are close to 30, more mature, and also when neither of them are realistically challenging
for the slams or the world number one ranking.
There is a quote by Honore de Balzac which reads, “Nothing so fortifies a friendship as a belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other.” It’s when those dynamics change that friendships are severely tested. Let’s hope Wozniacki and Azarenka push each other to greater heights just like Martina and Chris did while keeping their personal bond intact. The two and the sport would be the better for it.
Haresh Ramchandani writes for an Indian sports site http://sportskeeda.com