Advantage, Florida The tennis great says her home state helped shape her--on and off the court

February 23, 2004

When you grow up in a state where you can wear a T-shirt from the
moment you wake up until the moment you fall into bed, every day
of the year, you're almost obligated to play outside all the
time. And when I was a kid in Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s, I
spent countless blissful afternoons splashing around in my
friend's pool and having barbecues afterward. Of course, that
changed when my father, Jimmy, started taking me with him to
Holiday Park, where he was the director of the municipal tennis
complex. I remember being five years old and listening to my dad
drone on about turning sideways and following through and feeling
so much resentment about how my summer routine had been ruined
by tennis.

Recently my dad explained his reason for dragging me to Holiday
Park with a shopping cart full of balls day after day: He wanted
to keep me under his wing and out of trouble. Obviously he
accomplished something more than that--he made me into a
world-class tennis player. But I didn't realize at the time how
lucky I was. Back then, tennis was one of the few competitive
sports that females played, and by the '70s Holiday Park (whose
tennis complex was later renamed after my dad) was a hotbed for
junior talent, with players like Brian Gottfried and Harold
Solomon. Yet for all the future stars who were there, and the
long hours of practice we put in, youth tennis in those days was
as much play as it was sport. Today, at the Evert Tennis Academy
in Boca Raton, which I run with my brother John, the kids are
always training at the highest level because the competitiveness
of the junior circuit requires them to. But when I was starting
out, my hitting partner and I would stroll up to the net between
points to compare nail-polish shades. Between practices we would
gather up the other kids and play football on a field across the
street.

When I started competing on a national level, I found that access
to swimming pools and green spaces wasn't the only advantage of
growing up in Florida. I once traveled to Chattanooga for a
junior tournament and played against girls who fainted from heat
exhaustion in the middle of a set. We players from Florida were
used to running around all year on those dusty clay courts in
stifling heat and humidity, and we'd crush opponents from other
states.

I know Florida is famous for its rabid football fans, but for
every tale you hear about heckling at the Orange Bowl in Miami or
the Swamp in Gainesville, I can tell you a story that shows a
different side of Floridians. In my experience the fans have been
as warm and pleasant as the weather. I'll never forget coming
home from my first U.S. Open, in 1971, when I was 16 and hearing
the pilot of the airplane request that "the Evert party" remain
in our seats until everyone else had disembarked. I knew
something was up but was astounded to see my St. Thomas Aquinas
High classmates waiting with signs and horns to greet me at the
gate. Until that point I'd always been the girl standing along
the wall at the dance, and it was strange and wonderful to have
people coming out to honor me. From that moment on I knew that,
win or lose, I would have a supportive fan base back in the
Sunshine State.

As my tennis started taking me all over the world, I purchased
houses in other places. But I will always call Florida home. Now
I live with my husband, Andy Mill, and three sons in Boca Raton,
and just as when I was a young girl, we spend much of our time
having fun outside. Andy often takes the boys to the Keys to fish
for snapper and tarpon, and he has introduced them to some of the
extreme sports he loves. Their latest passion is dirt biking, and
we spend two nights a week as well as a good part of most
weekends at the motocross course in Dania. Just the other evening
another parent and I were watching our sons race and noting how
lucky we were to know what our kids were up to. All these years
after that first trip to Holiday Park, I understood my dad
completely. As I get older, my dad gets smarter.

Six-time U.S. Open singles champion Chris Evert was inducted into
the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)