Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at Wimbledon in 2000.

Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at center court at Wimbledon in 2000.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of two posts on the intimate interview with tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert by Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. You can also read our analysis of what made the story so special.

By Esther Landhuis

I barely follow women’s tennis. Yet I fell spellbound, like many of you, reading the July 3 Washington Post feature about two of the sport’s greatest icons, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Amid a fierce rivalry spanning decades, the athletes forged a friendship off the court that has grown deeper still, as the two recently battled cancer.

Beyond the crisp, cinematic writing, I marveled at the story’s extraordinary honesty. Evert and Navratilova have spent years talking with reporters about their sports and their games, yet now — in an 8,000-plus-word piece with 1,500-plus reader comments — divulge details of stifling childhoods, stinging rejection, divorce, loneliness and, though it all, a loyalty in life as fierce as their rivalry on the court.

I wondered how Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins drew it all out. I asked if she’d be willing to be interviewed about, well, interviewing. In my reach-out to Jenkins, I wrote that I wanted to know:

… how you built trust, elicited candor, balanced your own deep knowledge of these women with a needed fresh mind, determined story structure before the interview. And whatever else made the magic happen.

What follows is a conversation, edited for length and clarity, about all of this, but mostly about the magic.

You’ve been covering tennis for almost 40 years. How clearly did you know and communicate the intention and scope of this piece before requesting interviews?
I had no sense of the scope. It just grew and grew. I didn’t even start out thinking about a story at all.

On February 22, I took Martina to lunch as a friend. She was getting treated for throat and breast cancer in New York. We were just talking about cancer as people going through it. (EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time, Jenkins’ long-time partner was going through intensive surgery and chemotherapy for lung cancer.) We talked about Chrissie and how gritty she was, going through her treatment. Martina’s respect and affection for Chrissie were really clear.

Photo of Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins

After lunch, I got home and called another great mutual friend of ours, Mary Carillo — longtime broadcaster and former professional tennis player who had interviewed Chris Evert about her battle with ovarian cancer for a June 2022 segment on HBO’s Real Sports. Mary knew I was having lunch and wanted to know how Martina was doing. We were talking about both of them, and Mary said, “You know, Sally, they’ve never been closer.” That set the bell off. So I texted Martina a few weeks later and asked if I could write something. I texted Chrissie with the same idea, that I’d I’d like to maybe write something about her and Martina going through cancer, and their friendship. Martina was in favor but asked me to wait until she was done with treatment. Chrissie said she’d love to talk to me about it.

I thought this would be a nice column about Chrissie and Martina’s relationship and how they’ve helped sustain each other through cancer.

I got on the phone with Chris on April 23, and we ended up talking for over an hour. She was still at home in Florida recuperating from a double mastectomy. We talked another time by phone, and would text and email a little bit. Then Martina was ready to talk after finishing her radiation on May 1. She talked for an hour on the phone. The conversation just kept going.

I called my editor and told him this isn’t just a column; this is a story, and a pretty rich one. He asked how long I was thinking, like maybe 4,000 words? I thought that sounded right, like a pretty good magazine story. Then he asked if I thought they would sit for photos, and maybe a little video? I thought probably not but I texted them and they both said yes. Chrissie said she would go to Martina’s in Miami since she was still tired from the radiation. That’s the kind of care they take of each other.

So I asked that if I came down for the photoshoot, could I spend some time with you guys together? Martina found a very quiet place for the three of us to go for lunch after the photo shoot. We spent the day together.

Then I started writing, and 4,000 words turned into 10,000.

It strikes me that you moved seamlessly from texting and conversation as a friend with shared experiences, to thinking about a story and proposing formal interviews. Could you have done that as a young reporter just a few years into covering tennis?
Chrissie and Martina were always very good to female journalists. In 1984, I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, a 24-year-old not long out of college. Martina had come to the Bay Area for the Virginia Slims of California, riding a national story-type winning streak that would end up in the record book — and she granted an interview to the young reporter for the local paper. Both were always accommodating to the press. They understood it wasn’t enough to just play the game; they had to promote the game as well — a lesson from Billie Jean King.

Right before Wimbledon, Martina always had dinner with me and Robin Finn from The New York Times, so we could get a sense for how she was feeling, what she thought about the tournament, what she thought her chances were, how she was playing. One year Chrissie had to default from the U.S. Open semifinals because she’d gotten violently ill the night before. While sick in her hotel room, she got on the phone with me and a handful of other tennis writers. That shows just how accommodating they were.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of an interview as transactional.

So was it hard to go from off-record friend conversation to on-record interview request? No, because quite honestly, that’s how I had dealt with them pretty much throughout. When they retired and went into broadcasting, we became press colleagues and friends.

Some journalists view an interview as a conversation; others primarily as a transaction. To me, it’s the difference between going in thinking what can I learn, I wonder what they’ll tell me, how will they surprise me, versus going in with a pretty good idea of what I want to write and then asking questions to elicit good material. The latter seems more transactional, the former more open-ended. How did you approach the interview?
I don’t think I’ve ever thought of an interview as transactional. I mean, I just never would use that word. I think all the interviews I’ve done over the years are inquisitive. I think that’s your job, right, to just inquire? I’m not a gotcha investigative reporter. As a journalist, I just think you’re supposed to ask questions and write good stories with nice pictures.

How do you balance the need to cultivate long-term trust with the more immediate desire to ask personal questions, which might piss them off, for the story at hand?That’s a difficult question, because I don’t regard them as sources. When you say “source,” I think of off-the-record, background-y sources. Sure, they’re sources in the sense that I could call them up and say, Chrissie, could you talk to me about Serena Williams’ forehand? They’re expert sources in that regard. But I don’t think I was concerned about losing a source here if they didn’t like the story.

You’ve covered them for almost 40 years, so they obviously trust you, right?
Yes. I think they would both tell you that I and Robin Finn (now retired) are the only reporters they would have done this sort of thing with. The fact that they knew me and I had written about them a number of times over the years and they hadn’t had bad experiences with me… I’m sure all of that helped. So I understand what you’re asking, but I don’t think it’s applicable in this situation. It’s maybe more of a question for beat writers.

But regardless what situation you’re in, straightforwardness wins every time. A straightforward, polite question is better than beating around the bush. People interpret the latter as evasive or duplicitous, or they start worrying about your motive and what you’re really going to write — whereas if you ask a question straight out, they know where you’re coming from, and they can answer it or not.

… regardless what situation you’re in, straightforwardness wins every time.

Sincere curiosity is disarming. When you genuinely want to know or write about something, people trust it, rather than resent it. I was pretty surprised when Chrissie and Martina agreed to be interviewed for this piece. But I think they knew I was truly curious about their friendship. When I first got on the phone with Chrissie, I said, “Thanks for doing this.” And she said, “You asked. Nobody else has asked us.”

Who did you have in mind as a reader? Were you thinking about the tennis aficionado, or writing more for a general audience?
I wrote this one for me. That might sound like a crazy answer. …

I don’t even know why I’m getting emotional about it. Excuse me.

I don’t think most people know that my partner Nicole went through cancer. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Jenkins’ partner of 30 years is photojournalist Nicole Bengiveno, now retired from The New York Times.) Nikki was going through chemo at about the same time as Chrissie. I texted Chrissie for a little bit of advice. It’s an experience that other people don’t really understand that much. But I felt like I had some insight there.

When you’re going through it, friendship is just so hugely important. If you have cancer, you don’t want to worry other people. You spend a lot of time almost taking care of them more than yourself. It’s an interesting sort of counterintuitive thing. The thing that gives you relief is friendship because you’re not taking care of anybody when you’re a friend.

Friendship is the least freighted relationship in life in some ways. There’s a paragraph at the start of the final section about how friendship is this wholly voluntary relationship:

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.

It’s the thing that I like best in the whole story. It’s a paragraph I talked out with one of my best friends in the business, David Von Drehle, who’s a columnist and editor at the Washington Post.

I have a lot of regard for Chris and Martina. I like them very much personally. I’ve always viewed them as good examples for me. When I was a young woman sportswriter and professional, I felt influenced by them, so the story meant a lot to me — also because I’ve been through cancer with my partner and know what it does to a family.

How did that influence the reporting and writing?
I didn’t want to insert myself in the piece. I actually don’t like those stories. Even as a columnist, I don’t write in the first person a great deal.

I’m old fashioned in the sense that I don’t think readers care about reporters’ lives.

I talked with my editor, Dan Steinberg, about whether to contextualize with outside sources — should I be talking to Billie Jean King and Serena Williams? We decided no, because we wanted the piece to be a conversation between Chris and Martina. The piece is built as a back and forth between them, and I’m the interlocutor making that explicit for the reader. We wanted the piece to be about them and their exchange and their relationship. Even a quote from Billie Jean King would have felt interruptive, and certainly, my deal would have felt interruptive. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I don’t think readers care about reporters’ lives.

I’ve always felt that what a reporter goes through personally motivates what they’re curious about and what they bring out in a story.
I think you’re right about that. I tell younger writers that what you’re feeling when you write a piece will come up off the page almost like perfume. Your feelings for the story will emanate.

As you were drafting the piece, were there moments where you elaborated on something based on your own experience, but it got cut during editing?It was the dead opposite. I actually withheld myself from the piece so much. When you’re in a piece that long, you lose all sense of whether it’s any good. Before giving it to my editor, I showed it to David Von Drehle. He said, You’ve really held back. I know why you’re doing that, but you’re going to have to get your voice into it a little more.

What did he mean by that?
He just meant that it was too flat — that I hadn’t written it with a great deal of expression or creativity, that I had turned it over to their voices too much. It needed more vividness, more description, more of the writer’s voice.

I knew I wanted my surprise to be part of the piece — the extent to which I was surprised by two people I’ve known a long time and thought I knew so much about. I wanted to take the reader along with me. I needed to describe for the reader who they are, what they mean, how revolutionary they both really were. I went back and rewrote the first 15 inches of the piece to be more narratively strong.

How important is it for reporters to reach out to fellow journalists to bounce ideas and get their take on a project? Is that something you do intentionally?
I do it because I don’t think I’m smart enough on my own. I consult my colleagues quite a lot for advice and also for companionship, because it’s kind of a lonely gig.

The story generated an overwhelming response. Is there anything that could be replicated?
I asked David Maraniss, another good friend in the business, and he immediately said you can’t.

It is a unicorn of a story. It wasn’t like asking a stranger for an interview cold. On the flip side, it wasn’t uncomfortable having a semi-friendship with them. There are only two people in it, which kind of violates everything you’ve ever been taught. These are veteran public figures who have been interviewed a million times and know the rules.

That said, maybe the one part you can replicate is finding something you really want to write, that you really feel impelled to write — and, as an editor, asking reporters what’s got a hold of you? I was lucky. I had the liberty to go do it. I mean, how often does a newspaper writer get two and a half months to work on a piece?

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Esther Landhuis is a California-based science journalist and a senior contributor to Undark. She covers biomedicine and its intersections with law and business.

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