1971 US Open: Chris Evert becomes the “It Girl”
Excerpts of The 100 greatest days in New York sports by Stuart Miller
“She turned head because she was a pretty, young thing, but she captivated everyone because of her gutsy play and icy determination.
Chris Evert was not the first teen prodigy, but in an era filled with veterans like Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, along with one-handed backhands, serve and volley tactics, and uncertainty about the viability of the women’s tour, Evert revolutionized the women’s game.
On September 4, 1971, in her first Open at Forest Hills, this 16 years old perky blonde with a 12 tournaments, 44 match winning streak landed on the stadium court for her second round match against fourth seed Mary Ann Eisel.
Her wins had largely been against lesser lights or on clay, which favored her relentless baseline game. But on grass against one of the surface’s top players, she was unable to simply grind down her opponent. And so, Evert, an amateur who had taken 2 weeks off from high school in Fort Lauderdale for this tournament, seemed headed for home.
She lost a close first set 6-4 and trailed 6-5 in the second when Eisel stockpiled 3 match points. As television announcers Bud Collins and Jack Kramer gave her a warm ‘nice try kid’ sendoff, Evert suddenly showed Forest Hills and a national television audience that she had the makings of a champion.
On Eisel’s first effort, Evert set the tone, whistling a big backhand service return down the line. Then on a second serve, Evert mashed a crosscourt forehand passing shot. Evert easily captured the tiebreaker then crushed her demoralized foe 6-1 in the third set.
King who’d come over to watch the rookie, was impressed by how she handled the pressure, saying later:
A star was born in my eyes that match
This tournament had seemed a bit dreary: Wimbledon champion Evonne Goolagong has stayed home, defending Open champion Margaret Court was pregnant and top contender Virginia Wade was injured; in addition, many top men – including the past two champions Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall – were boycotting the tournament over a dispute between their pro circuit and the International Lawn Tennis Federation.
So this win made Evert an instant sensation. The New York Times dubbed her “Cinderella in sneakers”.
In the first of her 17 Open semifinals, Evert’s winning streak finally ended when King beat her in straight sets.
The women’s tour was new and needed to show how good the players were as athletes, but they also needed to show they had a marketable product. Chris was the whole package.