At this year’s ASB Women’s Classic tennis tournament in Auckland, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki professed a close friendship for one another. It was evident the comments weren’t just any feel-good throwaway lines either, judging by the two’s genuine enjoyment and passion at partnering up for the first time in a Doubles draw.
Judging at only face value, some unions also seem surprising. When last year Kane Williamson revealed a darts-playing friendship with that risible arch-villain of the baggy green cap, David Warner, during their time together at Indian T20 cricket team Sunrisers Hyderabad, the average cricket fan could have been forgiven for thinking the earnest New Zealand captain had been somehow misquoted.
Not so, according to Williamson. They had ‘good fun’ during downtime in the IPL. He was also supportive of Warner after ‘Sandpapergate’ during Australia’s tour of South Africa in March, 2018: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=12022638.
It would be incredibly hard to dislike Williamson in light of his forgiving and affable nature- even if we thought he took things a bit far by sticking up for Warner after the dirty sandpaper trick. He’s even managed in the past to melt the ego somewhat of the King of Indian cricket, Virat Kohli.
What though of historical, world-famous sporting friendships? Friendships made all the more remarkable considering the frequently polar-opposite backgrounds of the pairings involved, and by the very circumstances themselves under which they happened. Particularly the last one in the list which follows- a friendship that transcended and helped break through a deep, political East-West divide.
The Ultimate Defiance (Owens-Long)
At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, sometimes referred to as ‘The Hitler Olympics’, a bond found almost in a fairy story developed between one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, African-American World record breaker Jesse Owens and his German opponent, the very Aryan-looking long jumper, Ludwig ‘Luz’ Long.
Imagine thumbing your nose at a crazed dictator known for having people killed who defied him. It all began after Jesse Owens had fouled on his first two attempts in the Long Jump event qualifying. Unexpectedly and as a result, Long then placed a t-shirt some ten inches before the foul line and implored Owens to take off within its vicinity.
Owens went on to easily make the final and almost as easily to capture the gold medal with a record leap of 8.06 metres, an incredible effort for the time. Long didn’t just shake hands with the champion; he embraced him in full view of the dignitaries box, including the sadistic leader. They then walked arm-in-arm back to the changing rooms.
The two maintained contact and grew their friendship. Tragically though, Long became a casualty of World War Two, dead at age thirty from wounds sustained in Sicily, in July 1943. Owens later recounted that all his medals and cups could be melted down and would still have nothing on the friendship he felt for ‘Luz’ Long after Berlin.
Given each circumstance, it is probably the most incredible sporting friendship story of them all.
The Banter-Weight Championship of The World (Ali-Cosell)
The most iconic relationship ever forged in professional sports between a broadcaster and athlete happened between American TV sports casting legend Howard Cosell and the incomparable Muhammad Ali.
It is doubtful there’s been a better summary of the dynamic at play between the two than from Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, writing after Ali’s death in June, 2016: ‘They were a 1960s power couple, two hyper-talkative showmen. Their camaraderie produced an entertaining union of spirited opposites and a well-suited black-white pairing for the times. One man, Ali, understood racism; the other, Cosell experienced anti-Semitism. And neither could stop talking.’
Cosell loved Ali, but also wasn’t afraid to pull him up the times when he thought Ali descended past banter and into being over the top in demeaning his opponent. Especially the occasions when Ali could barely hide his contempt for his biggest nemesis, Joe Frazier. For his part, Ali once retorted to a Cosell jibe by saying ‘Every time you open your mouth you should be arrested for air pollution’.
Both would later acknowledge they were the perfect fit for one another. They often mock-sparred in their suits, with Ali often threatening to whip off Cosell’s toupee- of which he reportedly had numerous. There was also a very serious side to the union- Cosell never referred to Ali by his birth name ‘Cassius Clay’ after Ali had converted to Islam and accordingly changed his name; while others still did. And Cosell publicly admonished the New York State Athletic Commission for stripping Ali of his World title after Ali refused to acknowledge his enlisting in the Vietnam War draft due to his religion. This is in spite of Cosell having served as a Major in the US forces in World War Two.
Their partnership was so unique it spawned a dual biography, ‘Sound and Fury’. The author, Dave Kindred wrote: ‘Had they been practitioners of traditional humility, their extraordinary talents alone would have demanded that attention be paid. But there was nothing traditional about Ali and Cosell. A thimble would have contained their humility with room left over for an elephant.’
The extent of their affection summed up when Ali turned 50 in 1992. In ailing health with lung cancer, Cossel recorded a heartfelt greeting and said ‘I love you.’
Cosell passed away aged 77, two and a half years later. He was to outlive his great friend by three years. Muhammad Ali passed away on our Queen’s Birthday weekend, June, 2016.
When Perception Most Definitely Wasn’t Reality (Navratilova-Evert)
An oft-used tagline for their rivalry, ‘Fire and Ice’, was in reality a media beat-up, because tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert continue to have a close relationship off the court that nowadays feels almost impossible for two megastars of a sport. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have at times been reported as having a reasonable friendship, but it would almost surely be a world away from the genuine affection and respect the two female legends of their sport in the 70s and 80s share for each other.
Navritilova was Czech-born, two years younger, a natural serve and volley exponent, and physically strong-looking. She defected to the USA in 1975 while playing in New York in the US Open. Evert was seen in that era as practically an American Barbie Princess wielding a tennis racquet; a player who could conquer the world and look gorgeous doing it. They were so opposite in appearance that the tabloid-style headlines at the time almost wrote themselves already.
From 1973-1988 the two faced each other in tournament play a scarcely-believable eighty times, of which no less than sixty-one were finals- fourteen of which were Grand Slam finals. Navratilova dominated those 10-4. Their overall head-to-head record was a lot closer, albeit still in favour of Navratilova. Across their sixty-one finals it was 36-25, and across all their eighty matches, 43-37.
Their on-court rivalry is easily the most prolific in modern sports history between two individuals, male or female. To give some context, by quite a distance the most prolific match-up on the Men’s side of tennis involves Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But their total pales at twenty-five shy of Navratilova and Evert, at fifty-five encounters.
That the two could face each other eighty times of course demonstrates longevity, but also highlights how far ahead of the rest of the chasing pack they mostly were, save for the odd major victory by wonderful players in their own right, like Tracy Austin, Evonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade.
Even though some media outlets had the public conned into thinking Navratilova and Evert couldn’t stand the sight of each other, it was almost the complete opposite that was true. In a 2010 ESPN documentary ‘Unmatched’, the pair spoke of their years of friendship, and about times of staying at each others’ homes.
Imagine the surprise of many of the public at large when Evert gave the following responses in that documentary: ‘We were such opposites that it enabled us to get closer. She has my back; I have hers. I think that people forget we were left alone in the locker room every Sunday after we played final matches, and one of us would be crying and the other would be comforting- nobody saw that.’ ‘When my first marriage was ending, she invited me to Aspen and taught me how to ski. Not many people who are Number 1 & 2 competitors would do that.’
Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Cowan-Zhuang)
Richard Nixon ultimately disgraced himself and his Senate with the Watergate scandal, but it was also under his watch that the greatest diplomatic sporting ice-breaker of all-time took place. It all happened at the unlikely setting of Nagoya, Japan- the venue for the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships.
Under instruction from their despotic Chairman, Mao, the Chinese team were given instructions not to initiate any contact with the American team- only to shake hands. But they reportedly could respond if any of the Americans tried talking first. During a lunch break, a US team member did try and converse with a Chinese opponent, but much bigger was to come.
Soon after, realising that he’d missed his team’s bus following a hit up with a Chinese player following training, a US player named Glenn Cowan jumped onto the Chinese team’s bus after being waved on board. Cowan had long hair and looked the archetypal hippy, and it was said at the time that the Chinese at first didn’t quite know what to make of him. Soon after though, a player called Zhuang Zhedong, sitting at the back, got up and greeted Cowan; saying through his interpreter that ‘despite the hostility between their country’s governments, the people were friends’.
Years later though, Zhuang explained the reason for the hesitation in approaching Cowan on the bus lay not in Cowan’s shaggy appearance, but in the words of a slogan which he had brought up to believe; which when translated was: ‘Down with American Imperialism’. That was until he suddenly recalled his country’s leader welcoming the American writer, Edgar Snow at the head rostrum of Tiananmen Square on National Day the year before, and proclaiming that the Chinese nation should now place its hope on the American people.
The situation of Zhuang trying to engage with Cowan on the bus journey back to the hotel by using any kind of inventive sign or body language or whatever communication was possible had its culmination in Zhuang rushing to present Cowan with a silk-screen portrait of a famous mountain range situated near his hometown. All Cowan had to offer immediately in return was a comb, but he knew that would almost be insulting. So the next day he sought out Zhuang near the Chinese team’s bus and presented him with a red, white and blue t-shirt emblazoned with the sign for peace and the words ‘Let it Be’, from the Beatles’ song.
Neither man could have foreseen the future impact of that brief meeting. Within months, Nixon had visited China, and in 1979 relations between the two countries were normalised for the first time since 1949, the year of the communist overthrow under Mao.
Chinese Table Tennis officials, among others, claimed the Zhuang-Cowan exchange as being the catalyst for a sea change that led to China as a nation re-integrating itself back into the international sports fold. Participation in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics (particularly so after Communist ally Russia had boycotted) was the final confirmation of a cessation to a kind of Cold War- Chinese delegates had initially withdrawn from the IOC and FIFA in 1958 over a spat about the status of the new colony of Taiwan.
Although when 1984 and the Olympics rolled around, Cowan’s name, and possibly Zhuang’s, wasn’t mentioned anywhere to very much effect.
Sadly, both are now gone. Cowan of a heart attack at the age of just 51 in 2004. Zhuang of colon cancer in 2013, aged 72. But their bus ride will forever live on in immortality.
The common thread in almost all the cases, and no doubt many others- a defiance of the norm. That’s the power of sport.
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