Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kind and Generous: Unmatched

It took 21 films for the “30 for 30” series to recognize the existence of females in sports, and now it’s as if Unmatched is trying to make up for lost time. Directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters, and produced by Hannah Storm, this documentary isn’t just by women or about women, it seems targeted for them, too. Unmatched mentions but isn’t really invested in the fierce on-court battles between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, just like it references but never evokes their incredible athletic dominance. Unmatched isn’t really interested in tennis, you see, it’s interested in Evert and Navratilova’s rivalry. And it’s interested in their rivalry because it’s fascinated by their friendship. Eschewing traditional talking heads and similar outsider analysis, Unmatched lets Evert and Navratilova tell their own story, in their own words, all from the confines of a picturesque New York beach house that’s right out of a Nancy Meyers movie. Whereas other filmmakers would have felt compelled to turn back the clock in order to delight in the exquisite precision of Evert and Navratilova’s volleys, Unmatched settles into a comfy chair in the here-and-now so that we can watch two of the best tennis players of all time trading memories.

The film isn’t without it’s charms, but it is decidedly low on testosterone. Catch this documentary while flipping through the channels and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed on Lifetime, not ESPN. After all, when’s the last time “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” found occasion to play any Natalie Merchant song, never mind the same song, “Kind and Generous,” three times in less than an hour? With scenes that capture Evert and Navratilova reclining on big white deck chairs, or walking down the beach wearing complementary sweater-and-scarf outfits, Unmatched looks straight out of a Nicholas Sparks movie. And if you told me that these shots were conceived for a CBS special romanticizing the friendship of Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, it would be tough to argue otherwise. (All that’s missing are dogs running up and down the surf.) The movie is so determined to convey Evert and Navratilova’s spiritual sisterhood that when the documentary ends with a shot of them driving off into the distance in a convertible, I breathed a sigh of relief that no canyon was in sight on the horizon.

In making these observations, my intention isn’t demean the film, or to suggest it won’t be enjoyed by men, but to accurately describe it. While I admit that I, for one, would have loved to see more tennis highlights, in order to appreciate Evert and Navratilova’s athletic gifts, and to relive the intensity of their rivalry, I can’t deny the uniqueness of the story that the filmmakers have chosen to tell. For 12 straight years, only Evert and Navratilova held the distinction of being the top-ranked player in women’s tennis. They were the faces of their sport. Over the course of their careers, the two greats played one another 80 times, including 60 finals. And while Navratilova won more often, both retired with 18 Grand Slam singles titles. In the history of American sports, no other rivalry measures up, not in length or competitiveness. That Evert and Navratilova emerged from this as friends is special in and of itself. But that they were close friends during much their careers, in a time when everyone around them wanted them to be bitter enemies, is even more unusual. I mean, can you imagine Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali going skiing together? Can you imagine Magic Johnson or Larry Bird consoling the loser of an NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics? Can you imagine Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on a double date? You don’t see bonds like this in sports – outside of the Williams sisters, which is another matter – first because rivalries are inherently contentious, and also because it’s nearly impossible for two athletes to compete as often, as long and as evenly as Evert and Navratilova did.

It only makes sense then to tell the story of these women together, because as deserving as they are of being featured individually you can’t do one of them justice without paying significant attention to the other. They are like Johnson and Bird in that respect, or, more accurately, Johnson and Bird are as historically inseparable as Evert and Navratilova. But given the frequency with which this ESPN Films series has mined our cultural history as much as our sporting history, it’s difficult to watch Unmatched without wondering if it would have been a stronger film by focusing on Navratilova alone. Different story, I concede. But what a compelling one! Born in Prague, at 18 Navratilova put her tennis career before her personal life by seeking asylum in the United States. Six years later, she put her personal life before her professional image and admitted her homosexuality – at the peak of her career, in queer-fearing 1981. For these reasons, and others, she was often cast as the villain. Navratilova was too Czech, too gay, too tall and too muscular to be wholeheartedly embraced by American crowds when cute, petite “Chrissie” Evert was standing on the opposite baseline. And so it’s worth asking: in the past 30 years, has any sports champion – male or female – been saddled with so much and overcome it so impressively for such a length of time? I can’t think of one.

Considering how fascinating it has been to probe the minds and feelings of Allen Iverson and Ricky Williams, two players who never dominated their sports like Navratilova dominated tennis, it’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t make a more determined effort to explore Navratilova’s psyche and soul. It’s sweet to watch Evert and Navratilova laughing together, reflecting on old times, conjuring up old matches like they were yesterday. It’s refreshing to see genuine affection, not just sportsmanship and professional courtesy, among two sports legends. But even though this documentary unearths the grittier topics mentioned above, it does so by kicking a shoe into the sand. Given Navratilova’s reticence – which is further hindered by Evert’s gift for gab – what we needed was a backhoe. Unmatched is a story of friendship, and, sure enough, that’s a special element of the Evert-Navratilova story. It’s just not the element that made them special.

Unmatched premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.


Daniel said...

Yikes - at least they aren't walking barefoot on the beach on their way back to have white zinfandel and gossip on the patio...right? Seriously, though, this sounds like a bizarre set-up to tell what does sounds like a great story. Really can't imagine any male tennis rivals (Agassi/Sampras, Nadal/Federer) bonding like this, and tennis is a really unique sport through which to examine rivalry.

But "Kind and Generous" three times? Wow.

BI Tool Guy said...

I was fortunate to stumble upon this at the beginning of the program. It was so touching, and interesting since I didn't realize how close of friends they have been at times, especially now. And they both looked very good for their age!

And by the way I am male, and still enjoyed the program a lot because it was not the usual sports documentary detailing the on-court history.

I did take note of the almost 100% female crew and producers listed in the credits. Interesting.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: It is a good story. I'm just not sure it's the story. (It's also interesting that the movie suggests they have this great bond and then also suggests that they always intended to get together and talk about the good old days. So, you know, which is it? I'm not debating that they're close, but I felt like the filmmakers added some false narrative.)

BTG: I agree with you that it's a touching story. And I'm not against going away from the court altogether. But I do admit that I feel like these two great on-court champions have their athletic prowess somewhat undersold. More visual evidence would have helped us feel it.