EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of two posts analyzing the stand-out profile of tennis greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova by Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins. You can also read our Q&A with Jenkins about her special relationship and interviews with the athletes.
By Dale KeigerVladimir Nabokov never wrote “Good Readers and Good Writers.” The esteemed, oft-quoted “essay” of that title, published in 1980 as the first part of “Lectures on Literature,” actually was pieced together by an editor from notes Nabokov made for a lecture on Jane Austen. All the same, the cobbled result is essential reading for aspiring scribblers and it includes this:
In order to bask in that magic, a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading.
On rare occasions I read a piece of journalism that gives me that telltale spinal zap. The most recent was a few weeks ago when I read Sally Jenkins’s superb “Bitter Rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors.” published by The Washington Post as one of its “Deep Reads.” It’s a long piece for a newspaper, around 8,500 words; the audio version runs more than 50 minutes.
Jenkins, a long-time Post sports columnist, delves and ponders the remarkable 50-year friendship between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who in their day were the best women’s tennis players in the world. On the court they were ferocious competitors who waged one epic battle after another in the finals of the biggest tournaments. They were coldly lethal toward each other when carrying racquets but somehow became best friends for life. As Jenkins reveals, “best friends” doesn’t begin to encompass their bond.
The greatness of this story did not gradually unfold to me. It was there from the start. By the end of the four-sentence lead (one of them a fragment), Jenkins had my full attention:
There is an audible rhythm to a Grand Slam tennis tournament, a thwock-tock, tock-thwock of strokes, like beats per minute, that steadily grows fainter as the field diminishes. At first the locker room is a hive of 128 competitors, milling and chattering, but each day their numbers ebb, until just two people are left in that confrontational hush known as the final. For so many years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were almost invariably the last two, left alone in a room so empty yet intimate that they could practically hear what was inside the other’s chest. Thwock-tock.
There it was: the serve-and-volley cadence of the opening sentence, the sound effects, the spot-on observations and Jenkins’s command of language. A tournament starts with 128 players and goes “until just two people are left in that confrontational hush known as the final.” Those two people return to a locker room “so empty and yet intimate that they could practically hear what was inside the other’s chest.”
I could expend 500 words on Jenkins’s first two paragraphs, but I’ll stop at 10: I knew I was in the hands of a master.
Bending time without losing the reader
I read on past Jenkins’s crafty bit of stage-setting and soon my editor’s brain slipped under the sentences to take stock of the architecture of the piece. I’ve been reading, writing, editing and teaching for so long, I now read with a bifurcated brain. Half loses itself in the storytelling while the other half steps back and, with some Nabokovian detachment, says, Okay, how’d she do that? What’s going on here? That seems like an odd decision, huh… Why can’t I put this down even though I have no interest in tennis and should have started dinner 20 minutes ago?
The editor’s part of my frontal cortex noted that six paragraphs in, the piece becomes unstuck in time. It begins in the reader’s present with those half-dozen first graphs that crook a finger: Got a minute? Got 50 minutes? You really should read this story about these famous tennis players. Jenkins then reels back to 1973, before skipping ahead to 1981 and then pulling out of the narrative altogether for 533 words in which she describes and differentiates Evert and Navratilova as they become famous and the public responds to them. After that, she drops us back into 1975, then ’81 again, before landing on their lives in retirement running up to 2022, when each receives a dreaded cancer diagnosis.
Then, with no real transition, we’re in the story’s present, at lunch with them and Jenkins in a Miami hotel. Though not for long. After a dollop of conversation, we reel back to 1973 and each woman’s slightly different memory of the day they met as teenagers. Finally, we settle into a long, engrossing account of the years when they became the two best female players in the world and squared off in one Grand Slam final after another. With a touch as perfect as a winning backhand, Jenkins zooms in to highlight crucial moments of crucial matches, then pulls back to situate everything in her protagonists’ complicated lives, then takes us back courtside.
Making superstars relatable
These vignettes of epic matches are as good as sports writing gets: vivid, perceptive, propulsive. Jenkins brings her knowledge and experience to bear; she knows tennis and knows what to watch for in the games grown-ups play. She aces one piercing phrase after another: “the compressed lethality of this two-fisted young woman,” a backhand winner “through an opening as narrow as one of [Everts’] old hair ribbons.” Navratilova and Evert “went at each other like flashing sabers,” “the delicate sweetheart vs. the bulging lesbian,” which out of context may sound needlessly callous but is essential to the story.
(Jenkins is just as good writing about off-the-court. I defy you to find a better paragraph about friendship than this:
Friendship is arguably the most wholly voluntary relationship. It reflects a mutual decision to keep pasting something back together, no matter how far it gets pulled apart, even when there is no obligatory reason, no justice-of-the-peace vow or chromosomal tie.)
These match reports charge the story’s batteries and the momentum carries us through sections where Jenkins nimbly turns the two women this way and that to reveal more about their characters and personalities and flaws. It’s usually hard for the rest of us to feel anything in common with athletes so good they seem scarcely human. Jenkins gets past this by characterizing all the ways these two were just like us: their fears, their insecurities, their moments of meanness, their bad decisions. And she shines more light on them by braiding various perspectives: how Evert and Navratilova seemed to each other, how they were portrayed by the media, what other players thought of them, how the public responded as their rivalry intensified.
Graph after graph, through their encounters on the court and then the ordeal of their cancer treatments, Jenkins pops in and out of her sequential narrative to elicit comments from each woman as she takes them back year by year by year. The effect is like a voiceover that enriches our understanding of why Jenkins has focused on these particular scenes, these incidents, these details that limn the Evert-Navratilova bond. At the story’s conclusion, the author loops back to lunch in Miami and a bit of what the players’ lives are like now.
Journalism as an exploration
As I teased apart the story’s components — mostly on rereading because the first time I told my inner editor to shut up and let me enjoy this — I pondered why it worked so very well. Why didn’t the story collapse under its own contrivance? All those time shifts. Jenkins could have simply pulled the reader in with a clever lead, applied her storytelling chops to a straightforward chronology, then turned the Miami lunch into a nice kicker and been done with it. Were all those woven story arcs necessary? Was she showing off? Why did I never feel adrift? (Answers to the first two: yes, and no. Answer to the third: Read on. Or better, read the story if you haven’t.)
I’ve no window into the mind of Sally Jenkins, but I don’t picture her, fingertips poised over the keyboard, mentally engineering the story. Here I need a tight focus. Now a little commentary from Chrissy — wait, no, from a lesser opponent. Yeah, that works. A description of the 1981 US Open final goes here and Navratilova’s coming out gay goes there. To achieve the right effect I’ll place some stuff about Evert’s private life here…and there you go.
Maybe that’s how she works, but I don’t think so.
Journalism is declarative. Essays are interrogative.
Jenkins is a wonderful journalist. But I think she approached this story not as a reporter but as an essayist. Journalism is declarative. Essays are interrogative. The journalist says, This is what I know. She has made up her mind and imposed some order on messy reality to communicate something important. She deals in points, straight lines, right angles. The essayist deals in fractals. She says, I’m not sure what to make of this, but come with me as I try to figure it out. Journalism is essential, but essays are a richer literary experience because, when done right, they resonate with emotion that might be inappropriate in reporting, and they make room for doubt and mystery that might hamstring journalism’s credibility. Essays are capacious in this way; they encompass not only what’s documented but what’s in the corner of the eye, the back of the mind and the inarticulate gut.
Jenkins-as-essayist puts on the page the intellectual and emotional work of trying to grasp a profound friendship. For example, early in the piece she quotes Evert recalling that one of the first people she called after learning she had cancer was Navratilova. And Jenkins writes:
Wait a second. Is Evert saying that the rival who dealt her the deepest professional cuts of her life, whose mere body language on the court once made her seethe, was among the very first people she wanted to talk to when she got cancer?
Then, when Navratilova remembers making the same call on getting her own diagnosis, Jenkins writes:
Hang on, you say.
This is a smart, gifted writer reaching for the ineffable. Trying to figure out how, after (and through) one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports, two women could come to reside in each other’s heart. As readers, we don’t have to keep a complex time structure straight or acquire an interest in tennis because what we’re really following is Jenkins’ train of thought. All the forked paths seem natural because that’s how our minds work, too. We’re happy beside Jenkins because who doesn’t yearn for the kind of friendship she lays before us?
… what we’re really following is Jenkins’ train of thought.
A final point, if I may. One of the most striking features of Jenkins’s masterpiece is how open and candid Evert and Navratilova were with the writer. They seem to have withheld nothing. At times there’s a level of intimacy that’s dumbfounding. Jenkins earned that kind of trust, from two women who were all too familiar with bad press, because she brought to their encounter decades of honesty, integrity, sensitivity and professionalism.
I don’t know how Evert and Navratilova feel about the outcome, but I think their trust was amply rewarded.
Dale Keiger, retired editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, is author of the anthology “The Man Who Signed the City: Portraits of Remarkable People” and writes a newsletter of essays in “The Joggled Mind,”