Chris Evert talked with SI.com about the state of tennis. (Photo: John Cordes/Icon SMI)
Now that August has arrived, the U.S. Open is within our sights. The weeks leading up to the last Grand Slam of the year are some of the most exciting in tennis, as the star-packed U.S. Open Series draws more eyes to the sport.
Chris Evert, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and a six-time U.S. Open winner, spoke with SI.com about teaming up with American Express to support and promote the game during the run up to the U.S. Open, as well as give her thoughts on the current state of the game.
SI.com: Describe the “Next Contenders” and “Fresh Courts” programs.
Chris Evert: The "Next Contenders" program is basically supporting some of the best up-and-coming players -- watching them, watching their success. John Isner and Victoria Azarenka are a part of the program, to name a few people, and I’ll also be overseeing and tweeting at the U.S. Open if I see some young contenders with a lot of potential in the tournament. The goal is to help fans get closer to the game.
As for the "Fresh Courts" program -- that’s a great thing that American Express is doing. It’s about renovating existing tennis facilities that are in need of repair and funding. It’s a great idea, to take these public tennis facilities that are really run down, where the courts are cracked and the nets are broken, and to refurbish them. I think that’ll encourage kids in that area to come out and play. That program is something I’m excited about because I grew up on public courts and I know how important they are -- not everybody can afford to belong to a private club or go to a tennis academy. So for the grassroots level, it’s vital that there are good facilities around the country.
So you grew up on public courts? Can you describe the tennis court where you had your first memory of the game?
It was Court 11 at Holiday Park (in Florida), which was the place where I learned to play. They had 21 courts there, and Court 11 was the teaching court. My dad was the head pro at Holiday Park, and I just have the fondest memories... He took me over there for the first time when I was six years old. He had a shopping cart full of tennis balls with him, and he just started throwing balls my way. [Laughing]
I definitely didn’t fall in love with the game right away. At first, I was upset and angry that he took me away from playing with my girlfriends and going swimming and having barbecues. But I think that as time went on and I practiced more and developed friendships with the kids there, it evolved into really enjoying the sport and enjoying practicing. Our reward was always to get to go to tournaments -- I loved going to tournaments -- and my dad would say that if I didn’t practice, I couldn’t go, so I started to love to practice. It was sort of a bribery thing at first, but at the end of the day it was a great life. Court 11 -- a green clay court.
You’ve seen tennis grow and develop over the years. How do you think the game has changed in the U.S.?
I think that American tennis gets a lot of heat, and there are always a lot of questions about what happened to American tennis and where the American stars are, but what’s happened is that tennis has become a global sport. Before, it was America and a few European countries. Now, it’s global.
In those other countries, tennis is the first or second most popular sport, because they’re smaller. So I think their tennis federations put a lot of money into facilities and training. I think the problem, and it’s really not so much a problem, but we have so many different options as a young kid coming up in the world of sports -- we have team sports.
Women five or ten years ago didn’t really have team sports. There are so many things, team and individual to choose from, so we’re not always going to get the best athletes in tennis. I think it’s time for us to keep encouraging the American players, but in the tennis world, don’t be afraid to back a European player. Appreciate that we have the Nadals, Federers, Djokovics and Wozniackis out there.
What do you think are the major challenges that young players face today?
It’s interesting with the women. If you look at the top, with the exception of the Williams sisters, a lot of the up-and-coming players seem to be between 18 and 25. Remember for 10 or 15 years, we had 16-year-olds winning Grand Slams, and the players -- Martina Hingis, Tracy Austin -- were much younger. I don’t think that’s going to happen now, because the women now are just physically stronger and you’re just not that strong at 16. The physical training is more intense now, so you’re not going to peak before you’re 21, and the same goes with mental maturity.
So what I see these next contenders dealing with is that, okay, you’re out of junior tennis, but there’s a big leap between junior tennis and professional tennis, and it’s both physical and mental. There’s a real step upwards. The women are stronger, they’re more match tough, and there’s so much more experience that they’ll be tougher mentally out there. Experience is really the key. It’s going to be shocking if someone emerges without experience to the second week of the tournament, because I think that’s basically what it’s all about.
What’s your most vivid memory of being an up-and-coming contender yourself?
Well, here’s another example of how young players were in my day. When I was 13 years old, I played in my first women’s tournament ever and went three sets [in a loss] with Mary-Ann Eisel, who was top 10 in the world. I remember realizing, “Woah. This [success] is achievable. This is reachable.” At that time, it was easier for the top juniors to integrate into professional tennis. There wasn’t that big of a gap, in other words, and that’s because the game was different, it was more one-dimensional. You either served-and-volleyed or you had ground strokes, but you didn’t have both.
So I think being 13 and getting that close was something, and then at 15, I beat Margaret Court, who had just won the [calendar] Grand Slam -- which was huge for me. That was really my introduction to the world of professional women’s tennis, and really the tennis world as a whole. That year I was the best junior in the country, and when I beat the No. 1 player, that was really a big deal.
I just don’t think you’re going to see that anymore, because of the fitness level, the training, and the mental part. There’s so much more that goes into being a successful, competitive tennis player these days. You have to be a great player and also a great athlete.
OK, before we let you go, who do you like as U.S. Open favorites?
How about this for the men's: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. [Laughing]