Chris Evert

Chris Evert, an American Original

By Neil Amdur, World Tennis, December 1989

By remaining true to herself, Jimmy Evert’s little girl gave new meaning to the word champion

For two decades she was Our Girl, Chrissie, Chris America, The Girl Next Door. She amazed us with her carriage, consistency and cool. And as she matured before our eyes, from a relatively shy 16-year-old Cinderella to the princess of women’s tennis, Chris Evert‘s style became the standard for others to emulate.

Great champions are measured not only by their titles but by their impact: Did their presence influence and enrich the sport? Arnold Palmer popularized golf for millions. Muhammad Ali designed new dimensions for the dweet science. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers stretched marathons from agony to ecstasy.

Few people have been scrutinized more on and off the field than Evert. Sure, she won Wimbledon? And Forest Hills, Flushing Meadows and Paris. But in 1974, it was “The Love Double” – Chrissie and Jimmy. Then came Burt and his “Babe”, a frolic in the Ford White House, a fairy-tale wedding with a British Knight, separation, divorce, and a mile-high romance with current husband, Andy Mill. And each time Evert added tournament titles and fresh story lines, her faithful wondered whether she was truly happy – or little girl blue.

It may have been destiny that brought Evert to tennis in 1971. It was the perfect time. Even with the most successful sports marketing program in history, women’s tennis would not have gained the same overwhelming acceptance without her. If Billie Jean King was the pathfinder, blazing the trail for equality, Evert’s longetivity and feminine image shaped the tour’s identity. She was the surrogate daughter for many newly liberated women and gave curious, tennis-playing males a reason to speculate about “what Chrissie is really like.”

Mary Ann Eisel, the victim of Evert’s amazing comeback from six match points at the 1971 US Open, can still recall that historic occasion.

“If it hadn’t been me,” Eisel said recently, referring to the match that launched 1,000 wins, “it would have been someone else. Chrissie was so mentally tough.”

But it was much later, in her thirties – when contemporaries were raising families – that Evert performed better, looked fitter and seemed more at ease than she did as the pony-tailed teenager who was often taken for granted and unappreciated for her methodical, seemingly icy, baseline demeanor.

Having followed Evert since 1961, when word first filtered out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about “Jimmy Evert’s little girl”, I am continually struck by Chris’ inner stregth: the narrowing of the eyes, the pursed lips, the determined slap on the thigh, the reflective pause while searching for an appropriate response.

Evert was neither a great natural athlete (“I don’t like sports,” she has said on more than one occasion) nor a tour intellectual. But she enjoyed winning, committed herself to it, and made hard work and mental toughness her formula for career success. By being true to herself, to a standard she was prepared to sacrifice for, she satisfied her father, family, friends and, finally, years later, herself.

Winning also gave Evert the pride and self-esteem to pursue more private fantasies. As one of five children from a conservative, middle-class family, Evert was always self-conscious about her background and appearance. It was not surprising, then, that her taste for good-looking, high-profile, rugged beaus – Jimmy Connors, Burt Reynolds, Vitas Gerulaitis, Trey Waltke, Jack Ford, John Lloyd, Adam Faith and Andy Mill – strayed from conventional roots. And despite her traditional upbringing, in the company of close friends, she can be spontaneous, unhibited and quick with the quip.

Evert is also a realist. She understands her limitations. Unlike King, who can be three places at once, Evert is best when focusing on one project at a time. Such single-mindedness has strengthened her resolve, but also left her concerned about appearing selfish in such endeavors, particularly with friends. Yet the trade-off is not performing the task as well as she would like.

When Chrissie met Lloyd at Wimbledon in 1978, she became so happily distracted by the involvement that it overshadowed her final-round match with Martina Navratilova, which she lost. By contrast, two years earlier, after having won the Wimbledon title, Evert spent a disconsolate night in her hotel room because she had no one to celebrate with.

Throughout her career, Evert has been blessed with strong and loyal support systems, from family in the early years to friends later on who gave unconditionally and were emotional bridges in times of solitude and crisis. Yet even in less secure moments, Evert has seldom ducked a challenge.

At a time when many athletes regarded the media with distrust or as adversaries, Evert’s press conferences were often chatty and informal. One of the few times she chose to skip the obligatorypost-match appearance occured at the 1979 Avon Championships at Madison Square Garden. Involved with plans for an April wedding to Lloyd and beaten on successive nights by Tracy Austin and Dianne Fromholtz, Evert issued an apology through a friend.

Her marriage to Lloyd, while at first seemingly idyllic, underscored Evert’s needs. They came from similar backgrounds and felt comfortable as a career couple. But they also carried different emotional baggage: Lloyd was more content to simplify life, Evert preferred external stimulation.

I can still recall a poignant phone conversation with Evert when the marriage was beginning to disintegrate. Chrissie, who had been attracted to Lloyd because of his sincerity and honesty, was now wavering. Something was missing, she said.

We talked for more than an hour about marriage, relationships and the links that bind couples. I likened such situations to riding out storms in a boat.

“I don’t want to leave something before I’ve given it a fair chance,” she said. An she did, staying with lloyd for another year before the pair parted amicably.

Evert’s recent decision to retire from major tournament competition seems based on the same pride she has attached to all facets of her life, including the endorsement contracts she has maintained (Wilson rackets, Converse shoes, Ellesse clothes, Rolex watches and Lipton).
Those who know Evert believe she will not settle for mediocrity once she finds her next niche, whether it is broadcasting, public relations or owning a restaurant (which a psychic once suggested she should do). whatever she decides, Evert will approach the assignment with the same intensity that kept her the queen of the court for two decades.

Leave a comment