Everyone in the stands knew the umpire had blown the call. "Advantage Evert Lloyd," he had blurted into his microphone on a breezy Florida evening last week. As the spectators at the first-round match of the Eckerd Open murmured, the player victimized by the miscue looked up from the baseline and stared at the offending official in mock reproach.
"Excuse me," he said with a smile. "I mean, advantage Evert." Laughter swept through the stadium.
Evert quickly disposed of her opponent, Gabriela Dinu, 6-2, 6-1, and had no trouble with her next four opponents, including Kate Gompert in the final on Sunday. In her patented business-as-usual manner, Evert beat Gompert 6-3, 6-2 for her 151st tournament title.
Chris Evert's defeating the world's 25th-ranked player on Florida clay shouldn't be stop-the-presses news. But of late Evert's world had seemed strangely out of orbit. She had taken five months off the tour to recover from a painful knee injury and from the hurt of her failed eight-year marriage to British tennis star John Lloyd. She had started losing to players—including Gompert in February—who once were happy to win just a few games from her. People wondered about her physical condition and her desire to resume a career in which she had won at least one Grand Slam crown for 13 straight years.
But now Evert seems to be back on track. On April 14 Chris Evert Lloyd became Chris Evert again, with her divorce from Lloyd. On April 26 in Houston, only two weeks after succumbing to the flu, an ear infection and underdog Manuela Maleeva at the Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head, S.C., Evert staged a stunning revival. She defeated Martina Navratilova, her longtime friend, rival and costar in the women's game. Evert lost the first set 6-3 but fought back to win the next two 6-1, 7-6.
The win did more than lift Evert's ranking from No. 4 to No. 3, behind Navratilova and Steffi Graf. It also underscored a personal victory: After five months of soul-searching, she had regained a two-handed grip on her emotions and ambitions. "I just had to get away from the circuit for a while, spend some time alone and think out my life," she said last week. "I've gone through a lot of emotions in the last year. I think that now I'm still a little bit sad about what happened. I had a great husband."
Sitting on a secluded patio at the Bardmoor Country Club in Largo, Fla., Evert punctuated the last sentence with a small laugh to lighten the mood. Still, her eyes grew misty as she spoke. "He's a great guy," she said. "So I think that both of us are feeling a sadness that it didn't work out. But I know that I feel, and I think John feels, that pressure has been lifted off our shoulders because we made a decision. We'd been going back and forth for two years, trying to work it out and getting marriage counseling. We tried our best, but it just didn't workout."
Their problems were certainly no secret. They first separated in 1984, remaining apart for six months. Although they didn't separate again until last fall, signs of trouble had persisted. There were reports that Chris thought John, who had tumbled from the No. 1 ranking in Britain into tennis oblivion, was too complacent about his deteriorating game. There were also reports of Chris's involvement with other men, including a relationship with British ex-pop star Adam Faith.
Her personal problems began to affect her tennis. While she made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, her coach, Dennis Ralston, detected a change. "At the Open, I could see something wasn't there," he says. "There was so much going on in her head. I think she was trying to sort things out for herself."
Evert's agent, Bob Kain of IMG, noticed similar signs of trouble. "Anyone who's gone through a divorce—and especially someone with Chris's determination and desire to succeed—can imagine how tough it was on her," he says. "They really did try."
For Evert, the constant tension frazzled her nerves and ruined her concentration. "I had never really gone through a lot of emotional crises," she said. "I've never had anyone close to me die, for instance. And when you have a marriage that doesn't work, there's just so much stress. I knew I had to deal with it alone. Through pain, I think you grow."
Part of the growth involves Lloyd. "The most important thing right now is that John and I still maintain the friendship we always had," she said. "And I'm very happy now that we've both come out of it, because there were never bitter feelings. There was always a caring and a sadness. So we'll be in each other's lives in a caring sort of way."
But now someone else is in Evert's life—former U.S. downhill ski champion Andy Mill. In the 1976 Winter Olympics, Mill finished sixth behind gold medalist Franz Klammer. He also competed in the 1980 Games. Today, Mill, 34, who accompanied Evert to the Eckerd Open, sells ski products, has his own syndicated ski show and works as a ski commentator for NBC. As for his relationship with Evert, he politely defers questions to her.
"It seems that I've always been so much into the tennis world," she said. "I married a tennis player. I was engaged to a tennis player [Jimmy Connors] before that. So it's nice to be with somebody who can take me away from tennis when I'm not playing. When I am playing, he's a real motivator. I seem to play very well when he's around."
One man who knows both Evert and Mill perceives a strong bond. "They complement each other very well," says Bob Horowitz, who not only is the director of the Eckerd Open but also employs Mill as a commentator for a syndicated sports TV production company. "I think it helps that they are from different backgrounds."
Evert, now 32, is laying the groundwork for her posttennis career. "I think that when I get out of the game, I'll be so happy to get out, because I feel it in my body now," she said. "It takes me longer to recuperate after long matches. I wake up stiff. I have to stretch a lot. I have to get a lot of massages. I know that I can't go on any longer than a year or two at this level."
During the Open this summer Evert plans to launch her own line of skin-care products and hopes to do some TV commentary. "The idea is that I don't want, all of a sudden when I retire, to look around and say, 'O.K., what am I going to do now?' "
But the big question is. What will women's tennis do without Chris? Case in point: Last year, without Evert in the field, the top midweek crowd at the Eckerd Open was 2,000. This year the tournament drew weekday crowds of more than 4,000.
"There's no question that Martina and Graf have the athletic ability," says Horowitz. "But in marquee value, Chris is right there with the Jack Nicklauses and Paul Newmans. She has a charisma that just brings people out."
All week long at Bardmoor, fans besieged her with cameras and autograph requests as she walked to and from matches with a police escort. Yet, despite such attention. Evert says that as No. 3, she feels the pressure is off her. "I sort of feel like the underdog, and that takes the heat off," she said.
Evert has instead tried to put more heat on opponents this year by adding spin and depth to her serve. Overall, her game is sharp and shows no ill effects from her bum knee, which she worked hard to strengthen with weights.
"The layoff certainly hurt her," says her father, Jimmy, a Fort Lauderdale pro who taught his daughter to play. "It was difficult for her to come back, and I think a lot of us were apprehensive about whether she would still have the desire. But, apparently, she does."