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Happiness is six hours a day with your eye on the ball

July 26, 1971
July 26, 1971

Table of Contents
July 26, 1971

The King
Right On
  • By Peter Carry

    Before the biggest and most jubilant track crowd of the year, the U.S. and Africa met down in Durham. The U.S. won, but the big attractions were Olympian Kip Keino and Ethiopia's mixed-up Mirus Ifter

Ali
Baseball
Golf
Bullfighting
Tennis
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Happiness is six hours a day with your eye on the ball

Chris Evert, the 16-year-old daughter of a Florida pro, already has upset the game's best. Now she starts her bid for fame and fortune

She is only a girl—slightly built and pretty in a fresh, sparkling fashion. She is 16 years old, a slender 105 pounds with the look of a high school cheerleader. But now see her: long hair back, wooden tennis racket in her hand, the South Florida sun getting higher and hotter. Why isn't she camped out on the Fort Lauderdale beach, flirting with boys, enjoying herself?

This is an article from the July 26, 1971 issue Original Layout

But no, not Chris Evert. She is comfortable here, further committing herself to her ambition. Since mid-September of last year, when she gained international attention by beating Francoise Durr of France and Margaret Court of Australia on two heady days, she has steadily progressed to the forefront of American tennis. Next month she will play for the U.S. on the Wightman Cup team, the youngest competitor to have that honor since Maureen Connally was selected at the same age 20 years ago. When that happened, it was a prelude to six U.S. and Wimbledon championships for Little Mo.

Not that Chris looks like another Connally, not yet. Her impressive record against a galaxy of more experienced players is tainted because the victories have come on clay, her favorite surface. Durr, Court, Billie Jean King, Mary Ann Curtis and Julie Heldman, victims all, can attest that you should no more challenge Chris on clay than seek B'rer Rabbit in the Briarpatch.

Judy Alvarez, who was ranked No. 6 in the U.S. when she retired and became a pro five years ago, explains the situation. "Chris is already one of the best clay-court players in the world. She is an excellent retriever and shotmaker, and that is what it takes on clay. But on the faster surfaces, grass and hard courts, it is a different, more aggressive game. You must have a powerful serve and be able to rush the net instead of standing back on the baseline. If she wants to stay on clay that is her business, but if she wants to win the big tournaments like Forest Hills and Wimbledon or play on the pro tour, she must develop a suitable game."

Chris would seem to agree, for next month she is starting to play regularly on fast surfaces. The Girls' 18s in Philadelphia, the Wightman Cup matches in Cleveland and the U.S. Open Championships at Forest Hills will require a strength and pace that has been demanded of her only occasionally in the past.

"It's going to be difficult for me, I know that," Chris says. "From now on about 75% of my matches will be on fast surfaces. If I find that I'm not doing well, I'll have to punish myself with more discipline."

More discipline? She already works out every day, five to six hours in the summer and as long as possible after school in the winter. An aunt, Ruth Evert in Columbus, Ga., recalls telephoning her Florida relatives one Christmas Day and finding that Chris was out on the tennis court practicing.

"I don't want to be an average teenager," she said one day recently in the family room of her home. There was a violent storm outside and rain smeared the windows, but Chris, her hair in pigtails, was dressed in one of her dozen tennis outfits in anticipation of clearing weather later in the afternoon. "If it weren't tennis it would be something else. So many kids today don't seem to have goals. You see them walking around the beach and they aren't really going anywhere. Having a date on Friday night is not the most important thing in the world to me. I don't have close friends at school. They just don't understand. I feel more comfortable around other tennis players."

Chris is not a dull girl. She has a lively personality and a mind to match. Her grades at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale last year averaged 90, even though tennis tournaments caused her to miss more than three weeks of school.

Her regimen began 10 years ago at the urging of her father, Jimmy, a tennis pro from whom she inherited her athletic ability and a slightly pigeon-toed walk. The senior Evert won the national indoor junior title in 1940 by defeating Vic Seixas and later captained the tennis team at Notre Dame. He has two brothers who are also tennis players; Jerry, the pro at a club in Houston, and Chuck, a former pro who now takes time from a successful Columbus, Ga. law practice to compete in senior men's events. Jimmy oversees 20 courts at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, the largest tennis complex in Florida. His two star pupils are Chris and her 13-year-old sister Jeanne, who is already ranked third nationally in 14-and-under play.

"I appreciate what my father has done for me," says Chris. "He is responsible for where I am, and most people don't understand. Oh, I didn't always like it. When I was in the seventh and eighth grades I think I missed going to parties. But I've lost interest in things like that. I'll never forget how happy I was when I won my first award. I was 8, and another girl and I were runners-up in a doubles tournament at the Orange Bowl."

Jimmy Evert may have provided the initial stimulus, but his coaching is now more important than any inspiration. If Chris quit tomorrow it would be all right with her father, but he feels that as long as she wants to play she should not squander her ability.

"Chris has amazed me," he says. "Maybe it's because I see her play every day and I think there is so much room for improvement, but I just don't see how she has accomplished all she has. When she beat Margaret Court I had to be told three or four times before it finally sank in. Now that she is about to play grass and hard-court tennis, I don't believe her serve is good enough to follow it to the net, and you must be able to do that. I think her forehand needs to be improved, too, because she moves much better to her left than her right. But we'll see."

Evert jokes that if Chris has weak wrists they probably come from his wife's side of the family. Colette Evert, weak wrists and all, oversees a household that seems a satellite to Holiday Park. For every knickknack on a table, there are a dozen trophies, plaques or similar awards elsewhere.

Tennis is a family affair for the Everts. Jimmy, Chris and Jeanne are at the courts constantly. Drew, 17, is less of a disciple, but he did reach the finals of the Florida juniors this year. John, 10, is just setting out in 12-and-under play. That leaves Clare, a raucous, untested 3, who may be a comer, and Colette, who keeps the Evert team fed and fit in an eight-room house four blocks from the park.

The two older girls share a bedroom, and Jeanne says their relationship is "typical of sisters. We have our normal fights about clothes and things like that. As for her tennis, I admire her but I don't look up to her like she's God. When we practice we don't play sets, because if we tried to score points we probably wouldn't get along. Of course, sometimes we can't help it, and we try to hit a winner."

Until recently Jimmy has been rather selective about where he let Chris compete, not just because of her age but because he feels a rigorous practice routine is more important at this stage of her development than tournament experience. Nevertheless, Chris has participated in all the national age-group championships. She was runner-up in the 12s and won the 14s and 16s. Last summer she reached the quarter finals of the 18s—with two more years of eligibility remaining—but had to default when she was only three points away from victory.

The loss was to the eventual finalist, Eliza Pande, and the circumstances that caused it bear noting. Chris was overcome by the heat and her own weariness, the result of playing the long, drawn-out clay game on grass. "I kept telling myself, 'You've got to go on, you can't stop,' " Chris recalls. "But finally I knew I had to quit. I couldn't breathe."

In the last year Chris has gained 10 pounds and she feels she is better prepared physically. "If I can stay on the court, I can do well," she says. "Winning the 18s, if not this year, then next year, is very important to me. I want to be one of the best players in the world some day and to do that I should at least be the best in my own age group."

An indication that many already consider her to be America's finest teenage player, if not something more, is her appointment to the Wightman Cup team, which annually faces Britain's best women. After Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals and Nancy Richey Gunter—the three top players in the U.S.—declined invitations, the way was opened for Chris. The selection committee was well aware that her modest women's ranking of 16th is deceiving, since it does not take into account her impressive wins of the last 10 months.

As an amateur she has had to reject winner's checks of nearly $4,000 this spring and summer alone. The largest, for $2,000, came—or didn't come—in the Virginia Slims Masters, making her the only amateur to win a professional tennis event this year. She did it by defeating Miss Durr (for the second time), Miss Alvarez, Mrs. King and Julie Held-man. The match with Billie Jean ended abruptly when Mrs. King retired after winning the first set 7-6 and losing the second 6-3. Chris' unfailing ability to return any shot simply wore out the ailing Billie Jean. Chris now has an open invitation to play in any event on the women's tour, a not so pleasant prospect for the other ladies. "Chrissie takes money right out of their pockets," says Judy Alvarez. "It's just a game to her now. If she doesn't win a dime, it doesn't mean a thing. There's nothing to complicate things for her."

That, of course, is not exactly true, although there is still very much of the little girl about Chris in even her biggest triumphs. When she beat Margaret Court only a week after the Australian champion had completed her second Grand Slam, she burst into tears.

The excruciating set scores of 7-6, 7-6 are a testament to her toughness, but when Mrs. Court hit the match point out of bounds, Chris dropped her racket, shook hands, walked off the court and began crying.

"I didn't want to cry, but when I saw Laurie Fleming was crying, I just couldn't help it," Chris recalls. Laurie, six months younger, is Chris' best friend. She, too, is from Fort Lauderdale, and their frequent practice sessions are between the two best women players in Florida.

Chris' steady, patient game is honed under Jimmy's watchful eye. He maintains a flow of pointed criticism. "Chris, you must put more spin on your serve," he tells her. "You're hitting it with a forehand grip. Now show me your grip after every serve."

Occasionally Chris' control will falter and she will curl the same frown that shows itself when she makes a bad shot in a match. More often, though, she seems emotionless—which is more a matter of concentration than character. Developing the killer instinct that gets a player to Wimbledon does not come easy for 16-year-old girls. She has to work at it.

Jimmy Evert, naturally, is pleased that Chris has the dedication he believes is necessary for excellence. "She's a good worker," he said one day as the two Evert girls were lashing the ball back and forth across the practice net. "She knows what she does wrong and she will work as hard as is required to improve."

In the next few years big-time tennis will become an even more consuming passion for Chris, with college getting a low priority. "Right now I don't see how college could help my game," she says, reflecting an awareness of the realities of tennis life. It is the knowledge of such factors that has sharpened her aim, and she always has a way of being on target. The other day she and Jeanne were whiling away an hour in the amusement arcade at the Atlanta airport. Chris was especially fascinated by the Target Zero game. As a fighter-pilot, the player must destroy a succession of ground installations. The highest possible score was 100. After a few games Chris' total climbed to 85—proving that her aptitudes for Target Zero and clay-court tennis are equally high.

"I've got to get 100," Chris said. Don't bet she won't.

PHOTOLYNN PELHAMAT PRACTICE, as ever, Chris works out on her father's courts in Fort Lauderdale.