"Unmatched" debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.
"Unmatched" takes one of the great storylines in sports - what happens when two rivals become solid, life-long friends - and weds it to the 30 for 30 version of Fried Green Tomatoes. It's tempting to call it a total waste of time, but there are so many good nuggets within it that it's worth a look, so long as Natalie Merchant on the soundtrack and wistful shots of middle-aged women walking on the beach that look like the cover of an Elin Hilderbrand novel don't grate. "Unmatched" swerves wildly between a compelling documentary about what happens when two competitors rise so far above the level of their sport that they're basically all alone in the world and a soft-focus commercial for arthritis medication.
The subject of "Unmatched" is the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, a rivalry that drove worldwide interest in women's tennis to one of its greatest peaks. The two were so dominant that for a 12-year stretch, one or the other was atop the world's women's rankings, without a single other woman coming even close. On top of this, the two became fast friends after Navratilova's arrival on the scene. In fact, they won a doubles trophy at Wimbledon, where the grass courts suited Navratilova's serve-and-volley type of game but always caused Evert to struggle. (The only Grand Slam tournament she won fewer times was the Australian Open.) The friendship between the two went through rough patches - particularly when Navratilova acquired a coach who insisted she could not be friends with her greatest rival - and media curiosity about how the two didn't hate each other's guts (because, y'know, women are all such catty bitches, right?) kept the story of their fluctuating relationship alive.
But there's another good reason the two attracted so much attention: They were simply both superb athletes, each driving the other to new standards of excellence. Evert was already at the top of her game when Navratilova arrived on the scene, but shortly after the Czech began playing on an international scale, she'd taken over the game. Evert refused to go quietly, however, and the two continued to push each other into the late '80s, when Evert finally retired at 34. Over the course of that period, Evert got involved in any number of celebrity dalliances (including two marriages), and Navratilova defected to the United States. Navratilova would also be known as a lesbian to her fellow players (though her coming out came later), and she describes Evert's support in this time as one of the key pillars of their friendship.
The best and worst thing about "Unmatched" is exactly the same thing. Directors Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters choose to set the whole thing as a long conversation between the two women as they are at present, wandering around one of their houses and on the beach nearby. The film will occasionally break into one-on-one interviews, but, for the most part, both subjects are driving the conversation here. What makes that work so well is that it gives a real sense both of the contours of this friendship - and how the two can pick it up again at any point in their lives, no matter how long it's been since they've seen each other - and of how the two women drive each other to be better. The competitiveness between the two comes out in simple, friendly conversation, as Evert might mention that she, say, was a stronger player mentally, even when Navratilova was dominant, and Navratilova will take issue. It's a fascinating look into the dynamic that grows between two people who are so far ahead of everybody else that they might as well be living on another planet, like if someone went back in time to make a film about Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe's friendship or (in keeping with the 30 for 30 theme) made a film about the close friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. This is a movie about how the only true soulmate someone who's best in the world at something can have is someone who is better.
Unfortunately, Lax and Winters don't trust this material. If this was just an hour of Evert and Navratilova shooting the shit while highlights from their many epic matches occasionally popped up, it wouldn't be the best 30 for 30 ever, but it would be a highly enjoyable hour of television. Instead, Lax and Winters frequently seem intent on turning the film into the chick-lit version of a sports documentary. There's nothing wrong with chick-lit, and it has its place, but when you're making a movie about two steely competitors who spent over a decade staring each other down, despite being good friends, you don't mute the impact with frequent dips into the Natalie Merchant back catalog. To go back to that theoretical Johnson vs. Bird film, is there any way that that piece would frequently cut to the two skipping stones on the surface of a placid lake while Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me" played on the soundtrack? Probably not.
The problem with "Unmatched" is that it wants to be about a rivalry and about a friendship, but it never realizes that the two are the same thing. Evert and Navratilova talk wistfully about how many more tournaments they might have won if the other hadn't existed, but there's a good chance that Evert isn't Evert without Navratilova and vice versa. They drove each other to be better, and since it came in the context of a relationship where they could both give each other good-natured ribbing about how much better either was than the other, they didn't destroy their essential talents trying to catch each other. It's a rare thing in sports to find a rivalry that so brings out the best in each competitor that they both become friends, but the Evert/Navratilova rivalry, like the Johnson/Bird rivalry, has that quality. The film adopts a fairly standard sports doc tone for the scenes where the two are taking each other on on the court, but it drops into its glossy, advertising-esque tone when talking about the two's friendship. The tones never mesh because they're diametrically opposed to each other in a way the Evert/Navratilova rivalry wasn't.
That said, though, there's always the game. Women's tennis is in something of a doldrums right now, but "Unmatched" is a bracing reminder of when it was one of the most exciting games in town (and it doesn't even bother diving into the insanity that was the men's field in the '80s). "Unmatched" doesn't delve into the world-class players who were always just a step below Evert and Navratilova, and it doesn't delve into the Steffi Grafs and Monica Seleses who pushed them off the main stage in the late '80s. But it doesn't have to. The footage of Evert and Navratilova's lengthy volleys, of the two finding new and improbable ways to beat each other, is a great reminder of how even the most individual of sports ends up being a cooperative game. There's an old maxim that you're only as good as your opponent, and Evert and Navratilova prove that over and over.