Evert: grit, grace and glamour
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Chris Evert was such a sweet 16 when she burst onto the national scene. With ponytail flying on the grass courts of Forest Hills, N.Y., this unseeded high school girl from Florida made three gripping comebacks against established women pros -- including once staving off six match points. While she didn't win the 1971 U.S. Open, she earned a more valuable prize that fortnight.
Part of Evert's charm was her tenaciousness -- she never conceded a point. Part of it was that two-handed backhand that spawned a craze among young girls for years to come. Part of it was -- and there's no getting around it -- she was feminine in a time when the stereotype of the woman tennis player was more masculine.
It was this blend of grit, grace and glamour that stole our hearts. And while the grace and glamour were nice to the eye, it was the grit that made her a champion.
"Losing hurts me," Evert said. "I was determined to be the best."
She didn't have a great serve, and she went to the net only to shake hands. But Evert used her relentless baseline game and strength of character to win 18 Grand Slam singles titles -- six U.S. Opens, three Wimbledons, seven French Opens and two Australian Opens. Most impressively, she won at least one Grand Slam tournament for 13 consecutive years (1974-86). She reached at least the semifinals in 52 of her 56 Slam events, including her first 34.
More accomplishments by Evert:
With no grunts or groans -- and also few smiles -- she was the model of gracious sportsmanship.
"Chris Evert never threw a tantrum, groused at opponents or blamed officials," Camille Paglia wrote in her book "Vamps and Tramps." "A bad call produced a steely stare at most. Chris behaved like an adult, taking full responsibility for her performance and deportment."
Evert, who was married to British tennis player John Lloyd for a time and is now wed to former Olympic skier Andy Mill, had a sense of humor away from the court, a side of her that the public didn't see.
"Martina claims I tell the dirtiest jokes around -- probably as a semirevolt against my strict Catholic upbringing," Evert said. "And when I've become angry in practice, every four-letter word imaginable has graced these lips."
She was born Dec. 21, 1954 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and raised on the clay of that city's tennis courts, where her father Jimmy was a teaching pro. When she was around 5, dad began giving her lessons. While a 4-foot-11 eighth-grader in 1969, she was mentioned in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd for being ranked No. 1 nationally in girls' 14-under tennis.
"I was very, very shy as a younger girl, just petrified of people," Evert said. "Tennis helped give me an identity and made me feel like somebody."
Her legend began in 1971, in her first appearance at a Grand Slam event. After an easy win in the first round of the U.S. Open, the young amateur defeated Mary Ann Eisel, the No. 4 American, in three sets, saving those six match points when Eisel served for the match at 6-5, 40-love in the second set. Suddenly she was "Little Chrissie, Cinderella in Sneakers." In her next two matches, she rallied from a set down to beat fifth-seeded Francoise Durr and Lesley Hunt. The clock struck midnight in the semifinals, however, as she lost to eventual champion Billie Jean King.
Not until the next year, on her 18th birthday (Dec. 21, 1972), did Evert turn pro. In 1974, Evert won her first two Grand Slams -- the French Open and Wimbledon. The storybook romance and engagement of Evert and Connors, also the Wimbledon champion, peaked that summer. But their relationship became strained, and their October wedding was called off.
With Connors out of her heart, what came next was the heart of her career. She was the No. 1 player in the world for most of the next five years. She won the French Open again in 1975 and the first of four straight U.S. Opens, defeating rival Evonne Goolagong in a three-set final. She also won Wimbledon in 1976, again beating Goolagong in the third set.
"When I was younger, I was a robot," she said. "Wind her up and she plays tennis."
While the titles piled up the next few year for the "Ice Maiden," the public that had adored her started to lose interest. Her emotionless court demeanor and seemingly automatic baseline game left the fans unmoved. It's easy to cheer for an underdog with these qualities, but not a top dog.
"And this went on for four years," Evert said. "I was the ice queen and they wanted to see me melt. They wanted to see me cry, probably show some emotion. But I carried it inside myself."
But in the late 1970s, the fans made another 180-degree turn. They cheered Evert again as her rivalry with her friend Navratilova heated up. "Martina and I are linked, whether we like it or not," Evert said.
Navratilova, who was superior athletically and played a manly serve-and-volley game, was cast as the villain. She appeared to be much bigger than the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Evert. And her being a lesbian outraged many fans, who preferred their heroes being vulnerable and as human as the girl next door.
There were three stages in their competition. It began with a frilly, 18-year-old princess defeating a wide-eyed, 16-year-old butterball from Prague in Akron, Ohio, in 1973. Evert won the first stage: 21-4. The middle stage ran from a 1978 Wimbledon warmup through the 1982 Australian Open, and Navratilova held a 14-9 edge. Navratilova dominated the last stage, winning 13 straight at one point as she took 25 of their final 32 matches. Overall, Navratilova held a 43-37 advantage, including 10-4 in Grand Slam finals (7-0 in Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals).
But Evert had her moments down the stretch against Navratilova, who also won 18 singles Grand Slams. Evert recorded exquisitely excruciating three-set victories on the Paris clay in the 1985 and '86 French Open finals.
She retired from the tour after losing a quarterfinal match to Zina Garrison at the 1989 U.S. Open. Naturally, when it was time for her to go, she left with dignity.
In 1995, she was the fourth player ever to be elected unanimously into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She serves as the business advisor to the board of directors for the WTA Tour Players Association and hosts the Chris Evert Pro/Celebrity tennis event to help fight drug abuse in South Florida.