In the end, Chris Evert fell somewhat short of becoming the new Evonne Goolagong at Forest Hills last week. But the poker-faced 16-year-old Florida ingenue with a two-fisted backhand and nothing to lose did provide the flash of life that the 1971 U.S. Open so desperately needed. Like many a New York production, the show was saved by a skirt.
The championships, threatened by tedium, bogged down by controversy and eventually awash in rain, will be remembered as the one spurned by the big names and brought to life by a little girl. As one European newsman put it snidely, "Shirley Temple is alive and well and living in Forest Hills." To most of the audience, however, she was a savior, more Joan of Arc than Shirley Temple. Many of the world's top contract professionals, including anticipated favorite Rod Laver, 1970 champion Ken Rosewall, Cliff Drysdale and Fred Stolle, had declined to take part in the $160,000 Open, citing fatigue. By being tired Rose-wall became the first Forest Hills champ not to defend his title in nearly 30 years—excluding those who rendered themselves ineligible by turning pro in the days when the tournament was an amateur affair. Aussie John Newcombe did show up to lend his mustache and dashing ways to the competition for $15,000 first-place money, and he was seeded first. He was also first to go, knocked out in his opening match by unseeded Czech Jan Kodes, who took the occasion to describe grass-court tennis as "a joke."
There was also a shortage of big-name women. Defending champion Margaret Court was pregnant, the 20-year-old Miss Goolagong was back home in Australia savoring her Wimbledon victory and Virginia Wade was injured.
Then along came slim, blonde, sloe-eyed Chris, hotly pursued by more TV camera crews and adjective dispensers than had ever been seen at Forest Hills, or perhaps in the whole borough of Queens. Miss Evert, who took two weeks off from Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High School to be on hand, was riding a string of 44 straight winning matches, dating back to February. However, only one of those wins—a 6-1, 6-1 trimming of Miss Wade Aug. 23 in the match that gave the U.S. the Wightman Cup over England—made her look like a real threat to the top-seeded Billie Jean King at Forest Hills.
September 19, 1971
That besting of Miss Wade was significant because it was on grass. The other stirring upsets Chris had pulled off since last September over such distinguished elders as Mrs. King, Mrs. Court and Francoise Durr had been on clay—a soft, uniform surface. Few observers expected Chris' defensive, counterpunching tactics and classic looping ground strokes from the backcourt to be formidable on quick, tricky grass, which favors the aggressive player who hits hard, moves to the net and gets plenty of spin on the ball.
And yet on the patchy swards of Forest Hills Miss Evert was formidable. Tournament Director Billy Talbert recognized a hot property and moved her directly into the stadium court for her first match. After beating Edda Buding easily Chris faced Mary Ann Eisel Curtis, one of the best American grass players. "I was petrified," Chris said of her center-court experience. But she looked amply loose beating Mrs. Curtis 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, coolly staving off six match points in the second set with long forehands and backhands that just landed in. Then she came from behind twice more to defeat Miss Durr (2-6, 6-2, 6-3) and Australia's Lesley Hunt (4-6, 6-2, 6-3). In each case she stayed at the baseline and kept hitting two-handed backhands and fluid forehands that ran her opponents from side to side until they wilted and lost their poise. When they came in, she hit past them. When they stayed back, she stranded them with nifty drop shots. Her unimposing serves sufficed. She seldom showed emotion, and she looked so young. The crowd went wild.
Tennis fans are not supposed to go wild. But these did not just clap politely for Chris, they yelled and whooped and grew so partisan as to cheer her opponents' errors. One misguided enthusiast even yelled "Out!" and caused Chris to let up on a ball that was in. Except in that one instance, the fans helped make Chris a testing opponent.
They also helped make her unpopular among the other women players, despite a general agreement that she was, well, a nice kid personally. It was said that Chrissiemania was turning the stadium atmosphere into that of "a baseball game"; that Chrissie herself hit "garbage" strokes; that she had "a kid's concentration," because she had nothing else on her mind; that she was so locked into her own rhythm and careful steady breathing that sometimes she served before her opponent was quite ready.
One woman player who spoke out against all this grumbling was Billie Jean King, the unquestioned master of the lady pros who had already won $60,000 this year. "Chris has really helped women's tennis," she said. "What it needs is more personalities. If any of the other girls feel jealous about the attention she's received, they should stop and think beyond their own little worlds." Billie Jean also declined to shudder at the notion of a tennis crowd's sounding like a baseball crowd. "I like demonstrative crowds," she said. "People who pay their hard-earned money for a ticket ought to be able to make noise. Maybe the girls could wear earmuffs."
Billie Jean did observe that Chris had the advantage enjoyed by a baseball rookie just up from the minors whose weaknesses the pitchers had not found yet. And the 27-year-old veteran pointed out that Chris "is on the crest of a wave. I hope she enjoys it now, while she can."
This was said a couple of days before Mrs. King set up the beachhead upon which Miss Evert's wave broke at last. Their face-off came in a stimulating semifinal match on Friday before an overflow of press and TV representatives and a crowd of 13,000 that included Spiro Agnew and Senator James Buckley.
Neither Chris nor Billie Jean was intimidated by the crowd, which displayed great enthusiasm for them both. Nor was Chris intimidated by Billie Jean, but the 27-year-old pro quickly confirmed Miss Evert's own suspicions that her game was not forceful enough to stop a first-rate player on grass.
Each held service until Billie Jean, trailing 2-3 in the first set, broke through and won seven straight games. Billie Jean stayed back for a while, refusing to give Chris a good passing-shot target. But she kept Chris' rhythm disrupted with a strong serve, with diversely spinning groundstrokes and with drop shots. And an occasional lob exposed Chris' lame overhead. Gradually Billie Jean worked her way to the net, where she was able to score with smashes much more consistently than Chris was able to pass her. There were many fine rallies that left the crowd with no cause to regret the Evert boom that had brought so many of them there, but the final score was 6-3, 6-2 King. Thus Mrs. King's status as top American woman remains secure, as does Miss Goolagong's as the tennis world's flashiest young meteor maid. Evonne hits with more zing and has fewer gaps in her game than Chris.
But Chris, four years younger than Evonne, is already an established drawing card, and her life—along with her "kid's concentration"—stands to become more complicated. ("Your mind is always being interrupted," Billie Jean warned her during the full-scale joint press conference following their match. "Your life is not your own except for the few hours you spend asleep at night.") For instance, the King-Evert match had its overtones of tennis politics. Though no one on either side would admit it publicly, the World Championship Tennis people were rooting for King, since the furor over Evert tended to take attention away from the absence of Laver, Rosewall and the other WCT pros. Of the missing pros only Laver admitted that the International Lawn Tennis Federation's decision to ban WCT players from open tournaments beginning next year influenced his decision not to show up at Forest Hills, but in effect if not intent there was a partial boycott of the tournament by WCT. On the other hand, ILTF and USLTA people were clearly delighted to see such a boycott upstaged by a slip of a girl.
Chris had no comment on all that. She was headed back to St. Thomas Aquinas High—and the rains came to Forest Hills.