Friends, Competitors, Friends
(Unmatched premieres on ESPN at 8pm on Tuesday, September 14, 2010. Visit the film’s page at the 30 For 30 website for additional screening dates and times.)
When it comes to Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters’s Unmatched, I think someone needs to coin a new term for its odd tone, which plays like the wires of the Oxygen, Lifetime, and WE tv networks got crossed with ESPN and HBO’s Real Sports. I have tried for the past several days and I can’t for the life of me settle on a term that does it justice. Fallopian Athletics? Lilith Sports? What I can say, with 100% confidence, is for those of you out there who are going to watch Unmatched, get very ready to tap into your inner lady—of both the hetero and homo varieties—because this thing is just dripping and oozing with sappy feminine testosterone.
For those who didn’t live through it, the long-running rivalry between tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was one of the all-time greats. And not just in tennis. In any sport, men’s or women’s. Statistically, it can’t be topped. Never have two world-class athletes played each other head-to-head so often with the stakes being so high (a staggering 80 times in 16 years?!). Had there not been a Chris, Martina would have added even more Grand Slam trophies to her shelf. Had there not been a Martina, Chris would have automatically doubled her championships. Without the other, each of these women would have had career statistics that no modern player would ever come close to touching.
Evert and Navratilova couldn’t have been more superficially opposite: a blonde, pretty American vs. a muscular, lesbian Communist? Of course, you can guess which player the media and fans took a shine to (though one nugget you might learn for the first time in this film is that contrary to stereotypes, Chris was the ‘toughie’ and Martina was the ‘softie’). Yet off the court, away from the cameras and fans, when it came to their personal relationship, Chris and Martina’s bond went deeper than mutual respect. They were actually very good friends. As their on-court rivalry heated up in Grand Slam final after Grand Slam final, that friendship became understandably strained at times. But they also knew that no one else on the planet understood their position better than the other. And so whenever times got tough, they turned to one another for support.
What makes Unmatched different than most 30 For 30 docs—or anything I can ever remember seeing, to be honest—isn’t the bizarre choice by the filmmakers to tell this story by having Chris and Martina drive out into the woods for a “weekend getaway,” thereby making it feel like a women’s deodorant commercial (this choice is what makes the film flirt with outright surreality). It’s that the subjects in this interview aren’t inarticulate athletes who are uncomfortable around cameras. Chris Evert has actually been working as a sportscaster for decades now. Which makes for a very strange alchemy. Unmatched is like one of those sincere but hokey Dick Enberg video essays that, in this case, has been written by the subjects themselves.
Honestly, if you are a macho male and you don’t appreciate tennis, watching Unmatched might be as uncomfortable an experience as getting fondled at a male gay strip club. Especially in the film’s closing ten minutes, which swirls and swells with emotion to the point where even I, a tennis lover who grew up watching this rivalry—and please pardon my crudeness here—was waiting for the filmmakers to dissolve from Chris and Martina walking along the beach at sunset, into the bedroom, where they would get it over with once and for all and show their true admiration for each other by 69ing the night away.
— Michael Tully