ESPN 30 for 30: Unmatched (2010)

Directed by Lisa Lax & Nancy Stern

As a 24 year old young man, the world of women’s sports may seem like something I might scoff at, but I would vehemently deny that as I am just simply a great sports fan. And perhaps my favorite female sport is tennis, featuring the likes of the Williams’ sisters when I was growing up and Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova now. But this bit of information does mean that I never knew of the great rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova from the 70s and 80s, I wasn’t born yet. For me, they were legends of the game, prime past and glory days gone, sitting in the broadcast booth covering the new legends of the game. At the same time, for me, Navratilova always seemed to be the more dominate one, having never seen the two play. She had a more special aura about her which seemed much more mystic than Evert’s seemingly more natural, kind of aw-shucks mood in the booth.

But before they were in the booth, they both were really dominate players, setting records which stand to this day in terms of matches won in a row, major victories, etc. etc. They played each other an amazing 80 times in their careers, 14 of which were in Grand Slam finals matches, which is incredible. From the sounds of it, they were the only two players in their era with a shot at the title, and like any great rivalry, there were ups and downs, which each player spending time as the #1 in the world, with a leg up on the other. Evert dominated the early goings, but eventually succumbed to a 14 match winning streak by Navratilova. But she showed her resiliency by bouncing back and ultimately extending her career. But the real story here, or rather the focus of the film, is how, despite the “bitter” rivalry between the two, they became and remain the best of friends.

What is perhaps the most remarkable fact about this entry in the series is that it is the first dealing with women in sports. It is a shame that it took this deep into the series for ESPN to tackle a women’s sports story, of which there are plenty, but at the same time the final product is very feminine. Boasting from the very beginning the touches of a sappy romance, the film features the Natalie Merchant song “Kind & Generous” quite prominently throughout. But even more so, we get the intimate strolls on the beach and cozy couch conversations of these two strong women. The style is really fitting given the fact that it is the first of only two women’s sports topics in the series, but at the same time it is grating and does not really suit the actual story being told.

As far as documentaries go, the film is far from groundbreaking in its approach, and actually quite lazy. All we get really is a few moments of reminiscence from two friends who are spending the weekend together at some beach home. They talk of what it was like forming their bond and dominating their sport, but really any stories that made the final cut are far too broad to become any intimate reveal of their lasting friendship. They tell their origin stories, like superheroes brought together to fight the rest of the tennis world. They speak briefly of whatever epic matches or moments from their careers, but their retrospectives seem slight for the grandness of their legend.

I do not applaud Lax and Stern for their work on the film because honestly all it became was a 50 minute special conversation between Evert and Navratilova instead of any meaningful documentary film. But these two stars should be remembered for what they did for women’s tennis and women’s sports, for their tremendous prowess on the court, for their exemplary friendship. At the same time, I can definitely say that Navratilova is far more impressive than the loud-mouthed, though sweet, Evert. The film even comes to the conclusion that Navratilova was the more impressive player, and I must say I was impressed by her sentiment, subtlety and skill. Theirs is a story worth telling, and a nice little entry into the series, which was lacking a woman’s presence, but the film suffers from a lack of idea and direction.

** – Poor

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