It was something more, or maybe something less, than a tennis tournament. There was a lively and loud Dixieland band, a water ballet, a million-dollar art show featuring Picassos and Utrillos and a pro-am, which reached its artistic height when Miami Dolphin Safety Dick Anderson banged himself over the right eye with his own metal racket. All this hoopla took place last week at The Tennis Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and served as a sideshow in the main attraction, hometown girl Chris Evert playing as a professional for the first time. It was the splashiest coming-out party for a Southern belle since Scarlett O'Hara made her debut at Tara.
The event was the S&H Green Stamps $50,000 Women's Tennis Classic, first stop on an eight-tournament tour called—without a shred of pity for headline writers—the United States Lawn Tennis Association Women's Prize Money Circuit, or USLTAWPMC. Since the stars were supposed to be Evert and the successful 21-year-old Australian, Evonne Goolagong, some people referred to it as the Ev and Chrissie Show, which is not to be confused with that other women's tennis tour, the one underwritten primarily by Virginia Slims cigarettes and featuring Billie Jean King and Margaret Court. King and Court are aging actresses who soon will have to content themselves with character roles, says the USLTA. Ev and Chrissie are the lovely ingenues.
There would not be a USLTA tour worth a sagging net without Evert. Virginia Slims wanted her badly, but she and/or her family chose to help the Establishment USLTA start what amounts to a Chrissie clay-court caravan. The last three tournaments will be in Sarasota, Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, and two of these on the slow clay that so nicely complements Evert's backcourt game. The tour opener last week was not only on clay, not only in her hometown, but also at the club where she practices almost every day.
So it was to no one's surprise that Evert turned up in the finals on Sunday and won in a rout, though not against her fellow starlet Goolagong. Her opponent was England's veteran Virginia Wade, nine years her senior. Though Wade played in five Virginia Slims tournaments last year and has the hardest serve in women's tennis, she was no match for Evert. The scores were 6-1, 6-2, and it took only 55 minutes for Evert to win the first prize of $10,000, the equivalent of 3,333 books of Green Stamps.
"I really felt like a beginner today," said Wade. "The only way we're going to have good matches against Chrissie is if she gets worse."
In her months of hard practice since her last tournament—Boca Raton in October—Evert seems to have put more muscle into her serve and, if possible, sharpened the ground strokes that were already radar-guided. She still stays away from the net as if it were radioactive, but she has excellent concentration, she disguises her shots until the last moment and, with the exception of her clever drop shot, appears to hit each ball with all her strength, especially her famous two-fisted backhand. Always when serving and often on ground strokes she lets out a loud grunt, which some sensitive Lauderdalians prefer to call a gasp.
"You put more energy in your grunt than your serve," scolds her father and coach, Jimmy.
Tennis pro Jimmy Evert is a meticulous and conservative man, so meticulous that when his kids practice at Fort Lauderdale's Holiday Park—the tennis complex that Jimmy runs—they get new balls at about the same time they would in a match, thus preventing any bad habits that might develop from swinging at dead ones. So conservative is Jimmy that he did not challenge the USLTA rule—of doubtful legality—that prevented Chris from turning pro until she was 18 and cost her almost $50,000.
Now that his daughter is 18, Jimmy is her agent as well, with the help of his brother, who is a lawyer in Georgia. As expected, Chris has not rushed out to endorse everything under the Florida sun. There is a new line of sportswear called Chrissie Evert for Sports 7 and she has joined the Wilson Sporting Goods staff, continuing to use Wilson's Billie Jean King model racket until she gets one with her own signature on it. So far that is all, though the business world would no doubt love to capitalize on her popularity by marketing Chrissie Evert cola, Chrissie Evert toenail polish and a Chrissie Evert doll—wind it up, and it swings a little racket and grunts.
If Evert was nervous in her first pro match, she did not show it. This despite tremendous pressure put on her by local people, including the disk jockey who gushed, "We've got our fingers crossed for you, Chrissie," and the tournament promoter, George Liddy, who gave her a new car—a chamois-colored Cutlass Supreme—the day before play began. Modeling one of her own brand of frocks—she trotted out a new one each day and loaned others to her 15-year-old sister Jeanne—she played Michele Gurdal of Belgium on Wednesday afternoon and put her away with ease 6-1, 6-2. The match took just 36 minutes.
"I'd rather have my pro debut here than anywhere else," she said afterward. "I know the people who are watching. If I win, I'd like to win in front of them. If I lose, I know they'll understand."
No understanding was needed, or even contemplated. On Friday Evert had an easy time (6-2, 6-1) with Czechoslovakia's Marie Neumannova, who serves left-handed and hits everything else right-handed. On Saturday the semifinal victim was pretty Linda Tuero (6-1, 6-2) whose novelist boyfriend William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, was in the audience.
"Chris is playing the best she has in her life," said Tuero.
Goolagong had been breezing also, beating Janet Haas 6-0, 6-1 and Patti Hogan 6-3, 6-3, but her Saturday afternoon match was against the more formidable Wade, and their battle was one of the tournament's most entertaining.
Goolagong, managed by the same people who handle Arnold Palmer and promoting a line of sportswear (Ginori) to rival Evert's, did not play well and Wade was aggressive and sharp. In the first set Wade had a 4-2 lead and was within a point of breaking Goolagong in the seventh game when the Aussie ran off five straight points—two of them on streaking backhand passing shots. The set went down to the last point of the nine-point tie breaker. Wade won it, then took the second set rather easily for a 7-6, 6-3 victory, and the producers of the Ev and Chrissie Show were looking for a catchy new title. Hey, how about Virginia Slams?
Whether or not she could wreck Evert's coming-out party by upsetting the hometown heroine on Sunday was another matter; she didn't seem overly optimistic. "I've practiced very hard and I've been playing well," she said. "I'm so pleased I got to the finals. She's a bloody good player on these courts. She'll probably kill me." Which gives Virginia honors as realist of the week.
The crowd, naturally, would be all for Evert—or would it? Six Fort Lauderdale girls, each about 13 and each in tennis clothes, were watching the Wade-Goolagong match and rooting hard for the Aussie. They wanted Goolagong to meet Evert in the finals the next day, right? Yes, they chorused. They would be rooting for Chris, right? Wrong. They would be for Goolagong.
"She's nicer than Chris," said one with a faceful of freckles and a mouthful of metal. "Chrissie's gotta lose sometime."
Well, Evert did not lose despite her little detractors. The only question about her, one left completely unanswered after the tournament, was how she would do were she to play on the tougher Slims Circuit with fewer events on Florida clay and steady opposition from King, Court, Nancy Gunter, Kerry Melville, etc. Evert herself would like to know and said she was sure the Women's Lob feud would be settled by next year.
In the meantime she will be traveling the USLTAWPMC, modeling her Sports 7 dresses, honing her strokes—and making money.