Events took a devilish turn last week in Charleston, W. Va., capital of the state that calls itself "Almost Heaven." Out in the Fort Hill section of town most residents stayed off the streets and bolted their doors while a murderer was on the prowl. And nearby at the Charleston Tennis Club, site of the only annual national tournament of any kind held in the state, No. 1 seed Jeanne Evert, short, plump sister of Chris, swept through her opponents in the USLTA Girls' 16 National Championships only to lose the title on the last point of a five-out-of-nine sudden-death tie breaker to a long shot named Betsy Nagelsen.
Only the day before Jeanne had beaten Susan Mehmedbasich of El Cerrito, Calif. 6-2, 7-5, prompting her defeated opponent to say, "She's a machine. She drives you up the wall." Like Chris, Jeanne has a baseline, ground-stroke game, at times retrieving balls in a manner reminiscent of W. C. Fields playing Ping-Pong. An icy steadiness denotes the Evert family game, and if anything Jeanne uses her relentless defense even more than Chris to force or exasperate an opponent into error. As Jeanne says, "I think maybe I make fewer errors, but Chris makes more winners."
The championship match with Betsy Nagelsen for the so-called Sweet 16 title offered the prospect of contrasting games, a sort of puncher vs. counter-puncher encounter. Although Betsy comes from St. Petersburg and the soft clay courts of Florida—just about the same consistency as the Har-Tru composition courts at Charleston—she plays more in the California serve-and-volley style. She decided on the strong net game three years ago because, as her mother Mrs. Charles Newcomer says, "Betsy just couldn't stay back. She's so quick and active." Since that time Betsy has been trying to put her game together, and the week before last showed signs of doing so as she reached the semifinals of the Girls' 18 Clay Court Championships in Memphis. Still, at the start of last week no one at Charleston was prepared for the show she put on. Seeded ninth, she beat the sixth, third and second seeds to reach the final against Jeanne, and she took the court the crowd favorite, not just because she had played so well in her previous matches or was the underdog but because there are tennis buffs, judging from comments in the stands, who find the Evert baseline game boring no matter how miraculous the retrieves. For what it is worth, Betsy, a lithe 5'7", had an advantage in reach over Jeanne, who is 5'1", and at 16 she was also older by a year.
In the first set Jeanne played to form, forcing Betsy into errors by hitting deep to her backhand. Jeanne also kept moving her opponent around the court, and the strategy worked as she won 6-4. Then Betsy began clicking with volleys and sharp placements that caught Jeanne out of position. Her serve, particularly to the ad court, was very effective. To meet the ball Jeanne had to stand several feet behind the baseline, and although she was not aced, she was handcuffed a number of times.
August 5, 1973
Betsy won the second set easily 6-2, but immediately lost the first two games of the third set. Then she bounced right back. "She can play bad for two games and great for four," Jeanne later pointed out. Leading 5-4, Betsy could have taken match point when Jeanne, after a long rally, hit a forehand that went very deep. Some spectators thought the ball was out, but it appeared to have ticked the outer edge of the baseline.
The match seesawed to 6-6, and then in the tie break Jeanne seemed a certain winner with a 4-2 lead after Betsy double faulted. Serving, Jeanne had three opportunities to get one point. "That's when I decided to go to the net," Betsy said. "I would rather lose at the net than lose in the backcourt. I have a feeling no one is going to beat her if they're standing back. I know I couldn't." She tied the score at 4-4, one point on a deadly smash. As spectators murmured and sucked in their breaths, Jeanne served. Betsy returned deep down the middle. It did not look like a difficult return, and Jeanne arched a high pop-fly lob. But as it started to complete its trajectory, it lacked the eyes that Jeanne's lobs ordinarily possess, and when the ball landed beyond the baseline Betsy, who had raced into position, leapt in joy.
This win was the biggest of Betsy Nagelsen's career. She deserved it. She played brilliantly, and although her game is not without fault, she is extremely promising. "That happens with her type of game," Jeanne said. "She used to make more errors—now she is steadier. I thought I played well, but she played better."
Interestingly, the night before when Jeanne was talking about her father, who was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. teaching brother John, she said, "If I win, he doesn't make a big deal. He'll say, 'Nice match, Jeanne.' If I lose, I feel like I've let him down, but he'll say, 'Jeanne, Betsy must have played really well.' " No sooner had Jeanne uttered Betsy's name than she quickly added that she was thinking too much about the match the next day, and she changed the subject.
Betsy will continue to play as an amateur, and her game is expected to get better when her teaching pro, Frank Brennan, moves to St. Petersburg, Fla. from New Jersey this September.
For Jeanne the loss was disappointing, for she badly wanted to win the title Chris had taken in 1970. It also may have been her last chance at an amateur championship. She is on the verge of turning pro—indeed, may do so any day.
On the pro circuit Jeanne and Chris will prompt comparison. In their father's opinion Jeanne's forehand is better than Chris' at the same age. Both use two-handed backhands, but with differences. Jeanne's is more of a flat stroke while Chris hits over the ball. Jeanne lets go with her left hand after making contact, but Chris keeps both hands on the racket. "My husband never taught that [the two-handed backhand]," Jeanne's mother, Colette, says, "but the girls did it because they were so small. He tried to break Chrissie of it when she was 11 or 12, but she just lost all control, it didn't come natural, so he said to use two hands."
The fact that Chris is a professional, to say nothing of Jeanne's plans, is a surprise to the Everts. "My husband started the kids in tennis because tennis had done so much for him in the Depression years," Colette explains. "Bobby Riggs helped pay his fare to go to Forest Hills. My husband lived a block away from the Chicago Town and Tennis Club, and he worked for the pro there, George O'Connell. In return the pro gave him lessons. He got a scholarship to Notre Dame and he was captain and No. 1 player. He just felt that if the children all had a sport like tennis they'd keep it the rest of their lives. But he never had the idea of developing national champions."
Going on about her girls, Mrs. Evert says, "The reason they haven't developed a net game is because they learned on clay, and clay is slow. My husband feels that ground strokes are the most important factor in building a good game. Later on you can work on coming to the net because your ground strokes will get you there. Another reason my husband didn't teach them net is that they could be passed. Had they been taller he might have started them earlier on the volley.
"The serve doesn't come naturally to them," she continues. "Drew [the oldest] has an excellent serve. I wish the girls could have it. The serve, the volley and the overhead are three areas that need improving. Chrissie has worked on those the last three years. Her serve is definitely improved and her overhead, too, but when she gets in a match she still lacks confidence, especially in the volley. So that's what she's working on now. Jeanne's learning from Chrissie's experience, and she's starting earlier to practice those three shots."
In practice Jeanne and Chrissie sometimes play for points. "She wins the majority," Jeanne says. "My game is the same as Chrissie's, but she's better at it. Her weaknesses and mine are the same, but mine are more obvious. She can cover the court a lot better. Her overhead is better. Her drop shot's better. Her backhand is her best shot, but I think my forehand is stronger than my backhand."
With Jeanne joining Chrissie as a pro, Colette is grateful that she and her husband won't have to be with one or the other on the road. "It gets kind of hard with three children playing in different tournaments," she says. This week, for example, she is off to Knoxville to be with John in the Boys' 12 championships.
Jeanne looks forward to the professional life. "I've played juniors since I was seven, and I've been playing the same people over and over. When I turn pro I'll get to travel and play different girls. In women's there's a lot of depth. I just hope I don't tighten up. I think I'll do O.K." Colette Evert has no fears. She says, "I don't think it will change anything except her bank account."