If it seems an eternity since she rode in National Velvet across the silver screen and sang On the Good Ship Lollipop over the airwaves, it is probably because, like few little girls before her, Christine Marie Evert grew up with most of America watching.
In truth, she has been on the tennis scene for just four years and she had never won the championship of her own country—never even made the finals of the U.S. Open, mind you. Nonetheless, what Evert always has had is timing. For better or worse, she was able to tuck her hair ribbons and lipsticks and double-fisted backhands into the tennis boom and emerge like the glittering prize in a Cracker Jack box.
She was a flat-out, full-blown international celeb at 16. Her game was dissected by scientists, her clothes and hair subject to the catty chatter of the country club, her romance on all the talk shows. She was dragged through the publicity mills without surcease.
Though such notoriety has damaged other damsels of similar precocity, Chris Evert survived by closing herself off, withdrawing behind a poker face and turning into "the ice maiden."
By last week all that had changed. Away from parental embrace, more mature now, open, real—with her boyfriend, Jimmy Connors, back and doing neat things like kissing her in public—Evert won the one championship that had eluded her for a lifetime. She won Forest Hills. After which, she threw her racket in the air and did a little crying. Chris Evert is, after all, 20. Whew!
Evert's victory was not totally unexpected. When the West Side Tennis Club was converted from grass to clay composition, she was automatically conceded the title. Over the past two years she had won 78 straight matches in 16 tournaments on clay surfaces, losing only five sets. Moreover, in the week preceding the Open, Evert had ripped through a tournament in Rye, N.Y., defeating the estimable Virginia Wade in the final, 6-0, 6-1, while giving up only 15 points in the first 11 games. If that wasn't enough warning, when the real thing began, Evert bludgeoned her way through the first four rounds at Forest Hills, losing only eight games in eight sets as opponents moaned about her "clay invincibility."
After a while this kind of wailing got to Evert. "It's pleasant to read that I'm unbeatable on clay," she said, "for about 10 seconds. Then I realize that what it means is if I don't win I should be ashamed of myself. I won't be shocked if I lose. I can play badly."
Evert was asked to recall the last time she played badly on clay. She thought for a long time. "Gee, you ask tough questions," she said.
Because her game is based on consistency, patience and faultless ground strokes, Evert's talent is seldom given proper due. She is called dull, boring, slow. But what she is, above all, is an incredibly hard worker whose sense of anticipation is unmatched. As Patti Hogan says, "Chris runs to the ball just before you've figured where to hit it."
Billie Jean King speaks of Evert's "relentlessness"; Julie Heldman, of her "great hands. Chris gets back so early on preparation that even on a bad bounce her hands can handle it and pull off a winner."
"She is not your basic jumping, dancing natural athlete," Heldman says, "but she has plugged away to develop the best shots in the game and avoid anything out of her capability. She's boring not because she wins so often but because she wins so perfectly!"
Francoise Durr, the Frenchwoman, concurs. "What can one do?" she asks. "Billie Jean, she can be very good, then not so good. Evonne can be good, then awful. But ah, that Chris. Nobody ne-vair saw her bad. Nobody ne-vair saw her progress. She always zat good."
Last Friday when Evert reached the semifinals, she found her doubles partner waiting for her. Martina Navratilova, the 18-year-old bouncing Czech, is one of the few women whose goal is to get more than a few points off Evert. A losing finalist on the clay of Paris, Rome and Amelia Island, the aggressive Navratilova presumed that if her approaches held up, she could win "with my wolley game." Her approaches did hold up, but her concentration didn't.
Evert's 6-4, 6-4 victory turned on two controversial calls, the first in the opening set when, with Evert serving at 4-3 and 15-40, Navratilova became upset during a replayed point and hit four careless shots to lose the game and a chance to tie the set.
The final disaster, however, came in the eighth game of the second set when Evert made a fine get and lofted a winning lob to the baseline that Navratilova insisted was out. She did a lot of howling and arm waving, after which she slammed her racket to the ground and lost the last 10 points of the match as the tears flowed.
"I'm just not ready psychologically," Navratilova said.
The next day Navratilova announced she was seeking political asylum in the U.S. "for tennis reasons rather than political ones. My federation doesn't let me play enough tennis. They say I am too Americanized." The Czech girl added that she would like to live in Los Angeles and hoped someday to become an American citizen.
Normally, Evert can count on some sort of mental advantage, but against Evonne Goolagong the psych edge is on the other side of the net.
Before their final, much was made of Evert's 6-2 clay court record against her opponent (11-9 on all surfaces) and that in their last encounter Evert destroyed Goolagong 6-1, 6-1. But that came during a period when the blithe Aborigine was firing her coach and hiring a husband. The new Mrs. Cawley went on to tear up World Team Tennis. Then, too, she is the last woman to beat Evert on clay. (1973. August. Cincinnati. Mark it down. A monument may be built.)
Regulars on the women's tour say Evert is tentative against Goolagong in the way everybody else is tentative against Evert. Indeed, as the former wonder children met in their most important confrontation, Evert seemed reluctant to hit all out, relying more on soft, looping shots and abandoning her baseline preserve to come to net on occasion. Goolagong elected to stay back and won the first set 7-5 with a marvelous backhand pass.
Early in the second set the pattern held as Goolagong continued to out-steady Evert. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the current shifted the other way. "It felt a bit monotonous. I was just getting tennised out," Goolagong was to say later.
Staying back, Evert started hitting harder, with more length and angles. She got stronger on serve, winning the fifth game at 15, the seventh at love, the ninth at 15. Goolagong was obviously tiring on the forehand and, serving in the 10th game, she made four errors to lose the set 6-4.
The first four games of the final set went against serve, but Evert was steeling herself now and Goolagong continued on the suicidal course of sparring from long range. Evert finally held serve for a 3-2 lead, then in the sixth game altered strategy and went to the net twice to win two points, getting the crucial break on an overhead, double-handed, lunging semi-smash off the backhand side. She ran off the next two games with the loss of only one point, and won the match 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
"Winning Wimbledon was great, but England is foreign to me," Evert said later. "This is better. This is home."
Ah, that Chris. Nobody ne-vair heard her bad.