Never bet on the stooge team that tours with the Harlem Globetrotters. Do not place so much as a sou on the chances of sunshine in Seattle. God help you if you think that Wile E. Coyote will ever catch the Road Runner, that a ballplayer will volunteer for a pay cut after a bad season, or that a politician's promise is worth more than a half ounce of bat liver. And, please, if you have any sense at all, never wager against a 22-year-old tennis-playing millionairess named Christine Marie Evert.
Last Sunday afternoon in New York's Madison Square Garden, Evert, after a shaky start, played a normal sort of match for her—which is to say she was unerring and unflappable—and beat Sue Barker of England 2-6, 6-1, 6-1. She there-by won the championship of the Virginia Slims tour, the Silver Ginny trophy for earning the most tour points, a diamond-and-gold necklace and $50,000. Her 1977 tournament earnings, with nine and a half months to go: $174,500.
It was inevitable. Going into the four-day event, Evert had a 44-6 lifetime record against the three players in her half of the draw and an 11-0 edge over Barker. On the tour she might as well have been playing against Neiman-Marcus mannequins, winning 32 of 34 matches, 64 of 71 sets and 69% of her games. Here was a young woman who already had won Wimbledon twice, Forest Hills twice and the Slims championship thrice, yet there were tennis experts in the Garden claiming that Evert was one of the most improved players on the tour. Impossible. But true.
"She wins a lot of points now off her serve," said Rosie Casals, one of Evert's Garden victims, "whereas before, she just got it in. It was something to start out the game with."
"She has a more subtle change of pace on her shots," said ex-player Julie Heldman. "And she has a fine overhead now. She hammers it."
"She's hitting the ball so much harder," said the tour's executive director, Peachy Kellmeyer. "I think she's going to keep on improving."
There was more. Technical stuff, like how Evert cleverly disguises her drop shot, the tennis equivalent of a bunt laid down by a slugger. How she slices her backhand once in a while. How adept she is with a touch angle backhand, whatever that is. How she eluded the paparazzi and had a reasonably private dinner date in Manhattan with fellow Floridian Burt Reynolds, actor and hall-of-fame centerfolder.
All this means that Evert is rolling in money and is up to her long eyelashes in trophies, but that Virginia Slims and women's tennis in general are stagnating a little. The four championship sessions in the Garden drew 39,234, significantly better than either of the last two years, when the event was held in Los Angeles, but average tournament attendance rose less than 1,000 over 1976. CBS televised four Slims finals in 1976 and beat the men's Avis Challenge Cup rating on NBC, but no Slims events were televised nationally this year. CBS apparently thought it could make more money with golf.
After seven years, the cigarette sponsor is still satisfied with the tour as a promotion/advertising vehicle, and promoters at most of the stops made money. Still, it is obvious that in order to fill more seats and lure back TV, women's tennis needs to find some strong competition for Evert, or it will continue to have finals that have all the suspense of shark vs. sardine.
There are some prospects. Tracy Austin, the California wonder child, is not yet 15 but has played in several Slims tournaments and has won a few matches. Billie Jean King, the California wonder woman, returned to singles play last week at age 33. She wanted to be admitted to the Slims championship as a "wild card" selection but she was rejected because she had not played in any singles matches on the circuit. So she entered a San Antonio tournament and came close to meeting transsexual Renee Richards in the semis. CBS planned to televise their match, but Richards was beaten in the quarters. After three knee operations, it will be difficult for King to reach the top level again.
Three more likely candidates are in their early 20s. Evonne Goolagong, 25, is due back after having her first child in May; she was No. 2 in the world behind Evert when she became pregnant. Then there is Czech defector Martina Navratilova, 20, the head of a corporation that uses her tour nickname: Brat, Inc. Navratilova used to be shaped like a Pilsener keg from her homeland, but she has shed 20 to 25 pounds (down to 145) and now has a discernible waist and evident additional quickness.
The third prospect is Barker, 20, the petite daughter of a retired brewery representative. Despite her size (5'5", 117 pounds), her forehand is more powerful even than Navratilova's. She grew up in Paignton, a smart Devonshire coastal resort. In nearby Torquay, Arthur Roberts, a well-known English coach, taught her tennis and discipline and often sent her home in tears. She always came back.
Navratilova and, of course, Barker were among the eight women who made it to the championship tournament at the Garden. They were the principals in the Orange group, while Evert, Casals and Britain's Virginia Wade were in the Gold. Each player met the other three in her group beginning Thursday night, then the top finisher in each group met in the final Sunday. Evert, as usual, had little trouble marching to the final, beating Yugoslavian economics student Mima Jausovec 6-0, 6-3, and Casals 6-1, 6-1 ("I don't think I can play much better than that," Chris said afterward).
Evert had a bit more to cope with in Wade, 31, who is not at all pleased that Barker has beaten her the last three times they have met and seems destined to replace her atop Britain's ladder. Evert beat Wade in straight sets, but the second set would have gone the other way had not an Evert forehand shot hit the net and crawled over as if it had little hands and feet. Evert proceeded to win 10 straight points and the match 6-2, 7-5.
In the Orange, Barker and Navratilova progressed undefeated to a Saturday meeting, despite the fact that both had sore shoulders. Navratilova developed hers the previous week in the final at Philadelphia, when Evert had made her hit "2,000 backhands," and it was obviously the more serious ailment. Barker beat Martina 7-5, 6-4 and advanced to probably the most important match of her life, with $20,000 (the difference between first and second prize) at stake, not to mention what the Slims PR people like to call "the first jewel in the Triple Crown of women's tennis," Wimbledon and Forest Hills being the other two.
Some people felt Evert would win so easily that the most exciting part of the final would be opera star Roberta Peters singing the national anthem. But Evert was tight (she double-faulted four times in the first set) and Barker was blasting marvelous forehand winners. Barker won the set 6-2, only the eighth Evert has lost this year.
The key game of the match was the first of the second set. Evert had to fight hard to win it after starting off with yet another double fault. From then on Barker, who could not maintain the high quality of her play in the first set, won only two more games. Her forehand shots, which are so powerful they seem to come off a man's racket rather than that of a frail-looking Devonshire lass, went into the net about as often as into her opponent's court. After Evert had broken service to go ahead 4-1 in the third set, Barker showed a teeny bit of temper, slamming a ball straight down with her racket.
Thus Chris Evert won her eighth major championship, once again showing little emotion. She keeps her emotions inside, along with concentration and determination that may already have made her the best woman player ever.
"I feel more than most players," Evert says. "I have a drive. I have a burning desire to win every time I step on the tennis court."