Chris Evert

Chris Evert, the way she was

By Steve Fink, World Tennis magazine, December 1989:

I met Chris Evert on the day she reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris 16 years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine. We became good friends, and I found myself immersed in her career.
She soon realized that I was regarded by the sport’s inner circle as her Boswell, as the primary source of information about her record, and she knew that my recollection of her matches was invariably sharper than her own. Throughout her career she would defer to me at press conferences from Palm Beach to Wimbledon whenever she could not answer a question about herself.

But my involvement with her went much deeper than that. I attended both of her weddings, sat with her family at many of her critical contests in the major championships, and spoke with her frequently before, during and after tournaments to offer council.
Given those circumstances, and the highly unusual of our alliance, I made it a practice, with few exceptions, not to write about he. The conflict would be clear-cut, and I saw no reason to abuse proximity of my position. But this is the time to relax journalistic binds a bit and offer my intimate assessment. Hers was a unique journey through the seventies and across the eighties, and to understand how Evert impacted her era, there is only one place to begin.

In September 1970, at the age of 15, Evert planted the first true seed of her greatness by toppling the world’s No.1 player Margaret Court 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals at Charlotte, North Carolina. Only weeks earlier, Court had completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Open at Forest Hills on grass, but on the clay of Charlotte the Fort Lauderdale prodigy erased the rangy Australian. It was unmistakably a sign of what was to come.

The following year, Chris competed in her first US Open at Forest Hills, and her inspired surge into the semifinals made her the talk of the tournament. Chris had been playing selected women’s tournaments for three years and had made her triumphant Wightman Cup debut earlier in that memorable summer of 1971. But Forest Hills was where she established herself, in no uncertain terms, as a player who would reshape the women’s game.
It was here that most players were first exposed to Evert’s unerring groundstrokes, her unflappable demeanor, her precise and powerful two-handed backhand. It was here that she would move beyond herself and not look back, giving a glimpse of the competitor who would ultimately come out ahead no matter how far she had been behind.
Seldom have these virtues been displayed so surely as when she saved six match points to oust Mary Ann Eisel 4-6 7-6 6-1 in the third round on a scintillating Saturday afternoon. Eisel had the ideal serve-and-volley game to threaten the teenage baseliner, and the fourth-ranked American forged ahead 6-4 6-5 40-0, triple match point. With her biting kick serve in full working order, playing on grass, and vastly more experienced, how could Eisel lose?

The answer was forthcoming. Evert drove a backhand down-the-line for a clean winner, a crosscourt forehand passing shot on the run, and then a startled Eisel double-faulted on the third match point. Three more times would Eisel arrive at match point, but two more winners helped settle the issue in the Floridian’s favor. Sitting in the Forest Hills stadium that afternoon, I had the feeling that I was witnessing a pivotal moment for Evert, one that would permanently change her competitive outlook.
Chris followed with two more come-from-behind, three-set victories, stopping Fran├žoise Durr and Lesley Hunt before succumbing 6-3 6-2 to the redoutable Billie Jean King in the semifinals.

Evert was rising rapidly, nut not too swiftly for her own good. In 1972 she moved into the top three in the world, reaching the semis of her first Wimbledon and the US Open and beginning her enormously attractive rivalry with Evonne Goolagong. Chris fell short in her first go at Goolagong on Centre Court, dropping a 4-6 6-3 6-4 decision after leading 3-0 in the second set. But later that summer she would beat Goolagong twice.

Her 1973 agenda was filled with important dates, including the first 2 of her 34 Grand Slam finals, which she lost to Court in Paris and King at Wimbledon. Her weight soared to an all-time career high of 135 pounds, but she still performed better than anyone except Billie Jean and Margaret that year and handed Court her only Grand Slam defeat of the season with a devastating display of offensive lobbing in her 6-1 1-6 6-1 Wimbledon semifinal win.

Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, Wimbledon 1973

The remainder of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties were demanding yet dominant years. Evert was the game’s greatest player for five straight years (1974-’78), slipped briefly to third in ’79 behind Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin, then rose again to the top in ’80 and ’81.
In this eight-year stretch, Evert collected 12 of her 18 Grand Slam titles, all three of her Wimbledon and five of her six US Open championships. But particularly in the former stages of this successful run, Chris was discovering that the American public who cheered her every move on the way up was now much less enamored of her. She was perceived as cold and detached, sporting but unfriendly.
And that’s why 1976 was such a bittersweet season for her. Her rivalry with Goolagong was flourishing. They would clash seven times, with Evert claiming victory on five occasions, including the Wimbledon and US Open finals, the first and only time in her career she would win those two titles in the same year.

That Wimbledon final was easily the most significant of their showdowns, a tribute more than anything else to the supreme mental toughness of Evert. Chris trailed 0-2 in the third, moved in front 5-4 and served for the match, then had to salvage her cause from 5-6 down to win 6-3 4-6 8-6.
Chris was exhilarated by the reaction of the American public, “I’ve never had so many people come up to me on the streets,” she told me a week after returning to the States. “Everywhere I go people keep coming up and congratulating me, telling me they saw the match and how much they enjoyed it.”
But if that was the bright side, it was counterbalanced by a generally negative response from crowds throughout the country. “I don’t think they understand how much it hurts to walk on court and always have the crowd root for my opponent,” Chris told me that winter.

“I know I’m No.1 and I win a lot of tournaments and they’re looking for new faces, but it really hurts to feel like nobody cares.”

Such a comment sounds strange in light of her immense popularity throughout the eighties, yet she made a valid point. And the pain persisted. But when Navratilova and Austin forced her into the role of third best in 1979, the public perception changed dramatically. Suddenly she was vulnerable again. What remained to be solved was Austin, a backcourt machine who eliminated Evert in five consecutive confrontations beginning with the ’79 US Open final and continuing until January ’80.
It was a particularly difficult phase for Evert. Austin treated her with something approaching disdain, and for the first time since she was a teenager taking on the tenacious Texan, Nancy Richey, Chris came upon an opponent who could actually outrally her from the baseline.

Not long after she lost to Austin in that 1979 Open final, I rode with Chris from the Wightman Cup matches in Palm Beach back to her home in Fort Lauderdale, and as she drove smoothly along the Florida Turnpike, she talked about her Austin anxiety.
“I watched Jimmy Connors playing John McEnroe at the US Open,” she reflected, “and he had the same look in his eyes as I think I have when I play Tracy. McEnroe and Tracy are so young and confident. They really look forward to playing us and they go out there thinking they’re going to win? You can feel it, and it can be very intimidating.”
I told her I was dubious about Connors’ chances of beating McEnroe on a regular basis, but she reserved judgement. “You never know, Jimmy could turn it around again.” “the same goes for you against Tracy,” I responded. She nodded unconvincingly.

After suffering three of those five losses to Tracy in an 11-day span during a bleak January, taking only 10 games in six sets, Evert withdrew from the rest of the indoor circuit. Rejuvenated, she returned in the spring to capture the French and Italian Opens, reached the final of Wimbledon, and then went after her fifth US Open.
All through that stretch she did not cross paths with Tracy, and so when they met in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, it was undeniably a must-win match for Evert; a loss would not only have given Austin a lock on the No.1 ranking for the year, but it would have shattered Chris’ pride.

The first four games were gathered in swiftly by Austin, and as a soft drizzle fell on the slick cement court, the prospects for Chris looked as gloomy as the day. But soon the skies brightened, a symbolic moment if there ever was one.
Chris revved into a much higher gear, driving the ball harder and deeper off both sides than she had in years and stunning Austin with the full force of her intensity. Evert cut the Californian down systematically and psychologically, taking 16 of the last 20 games to prevail 4-6 6-1 6-1. A day later she beat Hana Mandlikova for the crown.

Jimmy Evert, her father and coach, had the pleasure of watching his daughter win a Grand Slam title in person for the first time. He sat calmly under the hot sun, saying very little, feeling everything a man in his position must feel. Every so often he would release a “Great shot, Chrissie,” but all the while he remained understated and dignified.
Dignity was the quality one always most admired in Mr Evert, as I still refer to him. And unquestionably, he contributed immeasurably to his daughter’s enduring success. He was a superb architect, not unlike the late Harry Hopman in the simplicity of his approach to strokes and strategy. But above all, he created the ideal climate for Chris to compete, gave her the space she needed, and in his own, quiet way brought out the best in his daughter by not asking her to be more than herself. In any event, her 1980 Open win was just the lift she needed to carry her through to her third Wimbledon title in ’81. But this would be the seventh and final time Chris would finish the year as the No.1 player in the world. That’s because the most formidable foe of her career was only now coming into her own.

Martina Navratilova was irrefutably the best player in the world from 1982 through ’86, losing only 14 matches in those five years while winning 12 of her 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Chris was an equally clear-cut No.2 during that stretch, extending her streak of winning at least one Grand Slam title per season to 13 years.
Despite Navratilova’s near invincibility, Chris did not despair, sharing the four Grand Slam titles with Martina in 1982 and beating her on grass for the last time to win her first Australian Open. That Melbourne victory gave Chris a 30-18 lead in their incomparable rivalry. Then things changed.

Thirteen times in succession, including three Grand Slam finals in 1984, Navratilova claimed victory. But it was the last of the losses that really stung; it may well have been the single most painful defeat of Chris’ career.
In the final of the 1984 US Open, Chris came from a break down to seize the first set 6-4, and as the capacity stadium crowd showered her with applause, a seventh Open title seemed well within Evert’s grasp. With Martina serving for the second set at 5-4, Chris reached 15-40, double break point. A cautious Navratilova stayed beck behind her second serve, which she kicked safely to Evert’s forehand.
Not wanting to miss, Chris carefully guided her return crosscourt, but the ball floated long. She took a fleeting glance in the direction of her family, a look of complete dejection crossing her face. The set slipped away quickly, and the match soon followed 4-6 6-4 6-4.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, 1984 US Open

Evert disappeared into a small room underneath the stadium and cried privately. She handled the media with characteristic grace, but her sorrow surfaced later when she told me,

“I’m so disappointed I let my chance get away. If only I had won, this would have been the perfect match to retire on.”

Little did she know then that two of the most gratifying wins of her career were ahead of her. Both took place in the finals of the French Open (in 1985 and ’86); both were settled dramatically in three sets, and both were in the mold of all great Evert-Navratilova struggles, pitting the immaculate groundstroker against the versatile attacker.

In 1985, having finally ended her losing streak against Martina by winning the Virginia Slims of Florida, Chris had her conviction back. She took a commanding 6-3 4-2 15-40 lead on a windy afternoon in Paris and served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.
Martina, however, insisted on a third set. Chris moved in front 2-0, 3-1 and 5-3, but Navratilova’s obstinacy brought her back on level terms each time. The crux for Chris came at 5-5, 0-40.
Boosted by a remarkable reflex volley at 30-40, Chris held for 6-5, then broke Martina for the match with one of her vintage backhand down-the-line passing shots on the run. This was almost certainly the best big match she has ever played, a victory she will surely cherish longer than any other. Then, in 1986, Chris played probably the four best games of her career to run out the final from 2-3 in the third, coming through 2-6 6-3 6-3 for her record seventh French Open title.

Chris Evert, Roland Garros 1985

Martina and Chris played each other no fewer than 80 times, with Navratilova victorious in 43 of the matches. It was at Wimbledon where they clashed more frequently, the left-hander with the lethal serve on grass capturing seven of nine confrontations. Five of those seven losses were three-setters. Twice, Chris was up a break in the final set (1978 and ‘8), twice she took the first set of their finals (’78 and ’85), once she lost on a controversial call at 5-6, match point down in the third (’88).

Chris’ rivalry with Martina kept her going through the eighties when she might otherwise have called it quits. But while that series surely stands in a league by itself, it should not obscure several other great Evert matchups.

Her 1972-’82 series with Goolagong ended 25-13 in Chris’ favor and gave the galleries limitless pleasure. Evonne was carefree, all spontaneity, not a deep thinker. Chris was relentless, probing, calculating all the percentages. Evert had a 19-7 edge over King in their fiercely contested rivalry. Chris stopped Court 9 of 13 times between 1970 and ’77 by being able to handle Margaret’s first serve with ease off either side.

The Evert-Austin backcourt battles ended 9-8 in Tracy’s favor, although Chris won their last clash 6-0 6-0 at the end of 1982. And in her five-year (’85-’89) series with Steffi Graf, Chris was 6-8, winning the first six meetings by breaking down Steffi’s backhand, then losing the last eight as Steffi took over the women’s game.

But by the end of 1987 it was apparent that Chris’ game was on the decline. She still gave her share of powerful performances, had those isolated afternoons when she could play as well as she ever did, but the daily grind was becoming an ordeal. She was beaten by Lori McNeil in the US Open quarterfinals, the first time in 17 Opens she had not gone through to the semifinals. She lost to Sylvia Hanika for the first time in the opening round of the Virginia Slims Championships.
The morning after that loss to Hanika, I had breakfast with Chris and her fiance, Andy Mill, at their New York hotel. I had always believed in Chis’ resilience, had felt that she was made of tougher stock than any other champion. But I was discouraged by her growing number of off days, and I let her know how I felt.
“You always won against players like Hanika even when you were way below your best,” I told Chris. “Now it’s getting tougher all the time to win on your bad days. the preservation of your record is the most important thing for you to consider.”
She listened patiently, acknowledged my points, explained some extenuating circumstances behind the McNeil and Hanika defeats, then concluded: “I know what you’re saying, but I want to play at least another year. I know I’m having more bad days now, but I think I’ve got some great matches left in me.”
She quickly proved she was right by reaching her last Grand Slam final, the 1988 Australian Open, nailing Navratilova 6-2 7-5 in the semifinals before falling to Graf. she went on to reach the semis of both Wimbledon and the US Open later that year.

But the long-range commitment to her profession was taking its toll, robbing her of enthusiasm. She elected to play a reduced schedule this year. She got to three finals in a row in the spring, but the last of those was a penetrating three-set loss in Houston to the promising left-hander Monica Seles.
The Seles match was a big blow to Chris’ pride, but when she lost to Barbara Paulus in Geneva, Switzerland, that was more than she could accept. Evert returned to Florida, pulled out of the French and mulled over whether ot not to play Wimbledon.
I thought her decision to bypass Paris was sensible but hated the notion of her skipping Wimbledon. We spoke on the phone a few days after her loss to Paulus, and she explained why she had left Geneva with such dampened spirits.
“Barbara is like a lot of the good clay court players today,” said Chris. “She hits every ball with heavy topspin and I either have to step in and take it on the rise, which is difficult, or move way back and drive the ball from well behind the baseline, which isn’t easy either. It just isn’t any fun for me to play that kind of tennis.”

That explanation made perfect sense, but still I wondered about Wimbledon, and made my case for her to play this way: “Look, Chris? The worst that can happen is you go over there and you find out that you have nothing left, that you can’t get inspired and you lose early. But don’t forget that you’ll be back on the grass and the topspinners won’t be as big a problem as they ate in clay. It’s got to be worth the risk, and you should have a good shot to reach at least the semifinals.”

“There’s nothing I would rather have,” she replied “than the desire to play Wimbledon. I hope I can find it.”

She did, and a good draw helped her coast into the quarterfinals. Then she made one of her trademark recoveries against Laura Golarsa from 2-5 down in the third. Golarsa served for the match at 5-3 and, attacking intelligently reached 30-0. At 30-30 Chris chased down a deep crosscourt volley, drove a wondrous backhand down-the-line passing shot into the corner for a winner, and moved through the semifinals 6-3 2-6 7-5. It hardly mattered that Graf bruised her 6-2 6-1, getting to the final four had been a remarkable accomplishment.

Evert went back to her new home in Aspen, Colorado, and asked herself if there was enough motivation left to justify playing one more US Open. After thinking about it well into August, she gave herself the green light.
Once again her instincts were excellent. Meeting Seles for the first time since her loss in Houston, Evert gave one of the 10 best performances of her career to sideline the 15-year-old 6-0 6-2. She was quick and confident, using her two-handed backhand crosscourt and forehand down-the-line to break down her opponent’s southpaw forehand. She played the way she used to play, with an unwavering sense of purpose, a zest for competition.
Sadly but understandably, she could not carry that intensity into her match with Zina Garrison, and Zina rallied from 2-5 in the first set and two service breaks down to win 7-6 6-2 in the quarterfinals. And so it appeared that in 1989, for the first time in her professional career, she would go through an entire year without winning a single tournament. (She did manage, however, to win five straight Federation Cup matches as the United States win the team competition in Tokyo in October.)

As Evert’s career closes, it is no easy matter to determine when she actually reached her zenith as a player. I can only conclude that she had four peak periods: 1976, when Goolagong pushed her to a higher plateau, ’80 when Austin made her reach far inside herself, ’82 when she soared through the second half of the year with victories at the US and Australian Opens, and ’85 when she won the French final over Martina and nearly stopped her at Wimbledon. This much is certain: no one in the history of tennis has played the game so skillfully and successfully for so long without interruption as Evert.

Throughout her career, Chris was never fully appreciated as a player. Too large a part of her court craft was subtle. She could not overpower you with the groundstroke pace of a Graf, could not overwhelm you with Martina’s brand of aggression, could not glide through matches effortlessly like Goolagong. What Chris could do was continually find an opponent’s weak links and exploit those areas to the hilt.
To be sure, her game evolved from the strict baseline of the early seventies to the appreciably more diversified all-court competitor of the late eighties. But the constant of Chris’ game was her counterattacking excellence (probably no player has produced so many great passing shots off both sides) and her two-hander, arguably the best backhand in the history of the women’s game.

For me, the end of Chris’ career marks the end of a personal era as well. As I reflect on ou friendship, I can’t help but be reminded in some ways of a camaraderie that developed long ago between Robert Kennedy and journalist Pete Hamill. Hamill knew Kennedy intimately, and was one of the people who persuaded him to un for president in 1968.
After Kennedy’s death, Hamill made up his mind to keep his distance in future associations with politicians, the people he so frequently wrote about. His friendship with Kennedy had been rewarding, but he knew it had partially been a matter of timing, and that he probably would never experience anything like it again. As he would later write, “The air was chillier on the outside, but for me I knew I was better off that way.”
I sense a parallel between Hamill and my situation now. I was more than a close observer of Chris Evert’s career, in some respects, I was a participant. And I wouldn’t change a thing. But as I look to the future and consider what my role as a journalist will like without Chris on the court, I’m certain that fo me, the air will indeed be chillier.

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