Two facts were demonstrated last week during the Colgate Series Championships at Mission Hills in Southern California. One is that Chris Evert is not yet ready to settle for second place. The other is that it takes more than money to make a tennis tournament.
Evert and Martina Navratilova arrived in Palm Springs separated by only .486 of a point in the latest 1978 computer rankings of women players. Navratilova was No. 1 on the basis of her 11 wins, including Wimbledon and the Virginia Slims Championship, and her 2-1 record against Evert in their head-to-head meetings. Since winning the U.S. Open in September, however, Evert seemed to have regained the form and confidence she had temporarily lost by taking a four-month rest last winter. She had won two of the three tournaments she had entered since September.
If, Chrissie reasoned, she were to win the Colgate, she and Martina would have two major titles apiece, and their head-to-head record would be 2-2, but she, Evert, would be No. 1 because she had lost only to Evonne Goolagong (in the Slims of Boston) and to Martina (at Eastbourne and Wimbledon), whereas Martina had some "bad losses" on her record, meaning defeats at the hands of lesser players, namely Regina Marsikova, Pam Shriver, JoAnne Russell and Tracy Austin.
Early in the week of the Colgate, Evert said, "If I win, I'm No. 1. If Martina wins, she's No. 1. If Virginia Wade wins, everything's all mixed up."
November 27, 1978
"Well, there you have it," said Wade dryly. "If Chris Evert says it, it must be so." On the eve of the final, Navratilova said, "If I lose to Chris, I won't feel I'm No. 1. But I won't feel I'm No. 2 either. One and a half maybe."
So, with more than mere money riding on the outcome, the best eight players in the world, minus Goolagong—the latest in a frustrating string of injuries forced her to withdraw—got to work. Each day they would practice in brilliant desert sunshine at Palm Springs' posh Tennis Club, where they were quartered, or at Colgate's Mission Hills Country Club, some 15 miles away. And each afternoon, after the sun had dropped out of sight behind the San Jacinto Mountains and the temperatures on the desert floor had dropped as well, they would play their matches in the frigid air, wearing precious little, observed by a few hundred tennis fans wrapped to their blue noses in blankets, parkas and minks.
The tournament format, which looked on paper like a diagram of the molecular structure of an atom, was a double-elimination round robin for two rounds, leading to the semifinals, in which the top half of the draw, the red group, and the bottom half, the blue, were to mingle and produce finalists.
Unfortunately for the frozen fans who could have used some excitement, all went pretty much according to form. Evert and Navratilova advanced directly to the semifinals with two easy wins apiece. Wade and Virginia Ruzici (pronounced Roo-zeech), the leggy Romanian with the fearsome forehand, each had one loss—Wade to Martina and Ruzici to Chris—but, under the format, advanced anyway.
In the semis, Evert caught Wade on a bad night and dispatched her 6-2, 6-2, in a match that was even more one-sided than the score shows. Evert and Wade have had some great matches because Evert's play often responds to the intensity of Wade's. Their match last year at Mission Hills was one of the best of the tournament. But three weeks ago in the Wightman Cup, Evert beat Wade 6-0, 6-1 in a match Evert feels was one of the best of her life. She tapes her right wrist these days, not because it is injured but because it was taped when she played Wade that day. "It's kind of a psych now," she explained.
The other semifinal match, Navratilova against Ruzici, was only a little better. Both are exciting players when they are going well, but neither was particularly sharp. Martina won 6-4, 6-4 after breaking Ruzici's serve at 5-4 in each set, but her timing was off and her play was patchy. "Virginia hits her forehand 200 mph," said Martina, "and then she hits her backhand very softly. It's hard to get into any sort of pace against her."
Ruzici is a dark-haired, dark-eyed 23-year-old from Bucharest who has been playing in the U.S. for four years. In that time her ranking has risen from 112th to 13th. She hit her stride in Europe this summer, winning the French Open and making the finals of the German and Italian Opens. She announced that making the semifinals at Mission Hills was her goal, and when she had done that and then had lost to Navratilova she said, "I am satisfied."
Going into the final, Evert was calm and confident. She was fresh and she was playing well, whereas Navratilova, worn out by mid-September, had taken four weeks off to rest and was still getting her game back into shape. Evert had said a few weeks ago, "I think I could live with being No. 2," but her intensity the night before the final made it clear she had no intention of experimenting yet. When asked at a press conference if she felt she had something to prove against Navratilova, the usually patient Evert snapped, "I have nothing to prove to you people."
Money was certainly not an issue. In any other sport a $250,000 purse with $75,000 for the winner would energize the field right down to its socks. But in tennis, money is given away in such obscene bundles that although the Colgate purse is the largest of the year, bigger than the Open, bigger than Wimbledon, it was still a bit of a yawn because Colgate distributed $675,000 in bonus money the night before the tournament began.
The Mission Hills event was only one of the pots of gold at the end of the 28-tournament Colgate rainbow. The series began last November in Australia and included all the year's important events. Players accumulated points, just as in the men's Grand Prix, based on who, how and where they played. Only the eight players with the highest totals in the 28 designated tournaments, as well as the top four doubles teams, were entitled to play at Mission Hills, but the $675,000 bonus pool was disbursed down to 35th place for singles and 20th for doubles. Evert received $100,000 for finishing first, Wade got $65,000 for second and Ilana Kloss, No. 35, was given $3,000. Kloss was also ninth in doubles and earned $5,400 more for that.
In other words, if one were handed a check for $100,000 on Monday, one would probably not be excessively motivated by the prospect of another $75,000 five days later. Evert was not.
The final was played on Saturday and, for the sake of television, in the middle of the day. A drum and bugle corps from Twentynine Palms produced a few mildly martial airs, and balloons rose in the crystalline desert air as tennis players from eight countries, Evert the lone American among them, filed onto the stadium court. It was a perfect day for tennis, or almost anything else you can name.
Unfortunately the tennis did not measure up to the day. Evert was playing well and moving well, and when she moves well, as she said later, "I can lift my game to another level." But Navratilova couldn't get anything going. Her timing was off, badly in the first set. She would hit unsure drop shots and then appear to be off balance, as if she did not know what to do next. Her instinctive athletic grace was missing. Evert broke her serve in the sixth game and took the set 6-3.
Navratilova played better in the second set, but so did Evert. Martina won the first game but blew good chances to break Chris in the second and fourth and was broken, herself, in the third. "I had my chance," Navratilova said afterward. "When I was down 3-1 I should have been up 4-0. When I could get going it was too late."
By the fifth game Evert was hitting with authority, and despite the fact that Navratilova was able to break her twice, in the sixth and eighth, it was too late and Chris closed it out at 6-3 again.
"I could sense she wasn't in a winning mood," said Evert. "It's tough to have a major tournament at the end of the year. I saw it in Virginia Wade last night, too. I could sense that Martina was not willing to stay out there all day if necessary to win. I was willing to do that."
Such willingness is the quality that has always set Chris Evert apart. Noting that their schedules for next year are arranged so that they will meet at least six times, Martina, No. 1½, said, "It gets me tired just thinking about it."