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Looking Back at a Legend: Chris Evert

These days Serena's serve makes headlines, but Chrissie's backhand revolutionized tennis.

Published January 01, 2010 12:00

Looking Back at a Legend: Chris Evert
Chris Evert

Weeks at No.1: 262...3rd on all-time list
Year-End No.1 Finishes: 5...3rd on all-time list 
Tour Singles Titles: 154...2nd on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: 18...equal 4th on all-time list (w/Navratilova)
Career Match Win-Loss: 1309-146
Win-Loss Percentage: .900...1st on all-time list

Chris Evert announced herself to the world as a seemingly nerveless 16-year-old at the 1971 US Open, saving six match points against Mary Ann Eisel in the second round. Though Billie Jean King ended the Florida teenager's run three matches on in the semis, King later admitted to a panic attack. It may have been her Grand Slam debut but Evert was already shaping up as the first phenom of the Open Era and the television boom that coincided with it.

King, 27, wasn't ready to lose to the young amateur hailed Cinderella in Sneakers. But she could see Evert was just what the new Virginia Slims Pro Tour - with its need to attract a mainstream fan base and sponsors - had been waiting for. As well as a somewhat novel double-handed backhand and thread-the-needle passing shots, her father Jimmy had drilled into Chrissie the conviction a player should never, ever show what she was feeling. It was a mix that bamboozled opponents and, coupled with her pretty looks, transfixed crowds.

"A star was born in my eyes that week," King would say, but even she could not have guessed at what was to come. Nor, for that matter, could Evert, who had been raised in a loving but no-nonsense Catholic family and happily told reporters she'd be married with children by 21. Instead, she went on to finish five seasons as No.1, capture 154 titles - including a record seven French Opens - and win nine of every 10 matches she ever played. No player has maintained such high standards for so long.

Click here to view a photo gallery of highlights of Evert's career.

After that first encounter with King, Evert reached at least the last four of the next 34 Grand Slams she contested up to Wimbledon in 1983, where she was gunning for a fourth consecutive major but lost to Kathy Jordan in the third round. This would prove to be the only pre-quarterfinal exit she would ever suffer at a Slam; by the end of her career Evert had reached the final at 34 of the 56 she played, and the semis at 52 of them. From Roland Garros in 1974 until Roland Garros in 1986 she won at least one Grand Slam singles title every season, a 13-year stretch that remains the record.

These achievements formed a bridge from Margaret Court to Steffi Graf. On balance Evert had the measure of fluid, athletic foes like Evonne Goolagong Cawley, but the emergence of Tracy Austin in the late 1970s was another matter. Eight years younger, Austin's game was cut from the same cloth as Evert's and her will to win at least as fierce - plus she had nothing to lose. It was Austin who snapped Evert's six-year, 125-match win streak on clay - which is still the record for a single surface - at Rome in 1979.

Five losses on the trot to the upstart provoked a soul searching sabbatical, from which Evert emerged revitalized. But the rivalry that would make her a better player - and almost become bigger than the sport itself - was the one she shared with net-charging Martina Navratilova. The two first met in 1973 but by the 1980s Martina's desire to usurp Evert had spurred her to a training regime unprecedented in the sport. Martina's talent and natural athleticism had never been in doubt, but her supreme fitness now provided a psychological edge as well; for Evert this translated into 13 straight losses across 1983-84.

Ignoring hints it was time to retire, Evert responded in kind. She began to lift weights, and fortified her serve. Always a dab-hand at the drop shot and lob, she added verve to her volleying game, finding the nerve to snatch the net from Martina at key moments. The big pay-off came at Roland Garros in 1985, when Evert won a captivating three set final that she counts as her greatest win. Thereafter the rivalry was more even-handed; the two played 80 times, in no fewer than 60 finals, with Navratilova finishing 43-37. 

Click here to read quotes from Evert's peers and other tennis insiders.

Evert played her last Tour match, a sentiment-charged quarterfinal loss to Zina Garrison at the 1989 US Open, but a month later she finished on a winning note by joining forces with Navratilova to win the Fed Cup for the United States. When the last ball had been struck she had never ranked lower than No.4 and had collected countless accolades for her feats. But beneath the veneer of perfection things had always been more complicated.

When she first arrived on the scene Evert had been overwhelmed by the politics of tennis, and was not an instant convert to Billie Jean's Tour. Instead she remained loyal to the establishment and for a while joined Goolagong on a short-lived USTA-backed circuit. "Beating me became a community project," Evert later wrote in her autobiography, Chrissie, but once on board the locker room tensions faded. Encouraged by King, Evert even led her peers as an eight-term president of the WTA Tour. Peachy Kellmeyer, the Tour's first director, has joked that Evert seemed to spend more time in meetings than on court.

She spent plenty of time in the headlines, too. Engagement to Jimmy Connors sent the press into a spin when they both won Wimbledon in 1974. Later she dated movie star Burt Reynolds and president's son Jack Ford, and Andy Warhol gave her the iconic pop art treatment. She won the third of her three Wimbledon titles as Mrs John Lloyd, sealing her status as Britain's favorite adopted daughter. Burnishing her star power at home, Evert won the US Open title four times in a row from 1975 to 1978, and six times all up.

Click here to read fan tributes to Evert and submit your own.

The self-possessed but shy girl became a media-savvy champion, gracious in victory and defeat. But she would own up to her share of diva-like moments, and to being reduced to tears by spectators during her 'clinical' reign in the seventies. In truth, nicknames such as Ice Maiden and Little Miss Metronome did Evert a disservice. Yes, she played with relentless focus and control, but that drew on a deep devotion to the game. And, far from being limited, her elegant strokes belied a deceptive level of variety and nuance.

If Billie Jean 'made' the Tour, Chrissie made it a marketable commodity. Her trick was to reconcile her desire to not be a "stereotypical jock" (she has conceded she may have overdone the nail polish, eyeliner and frills at times) with the commitment and sacrifice needed to be a great athlete. She made it okay for kids to hold their racquet with two hands, and made parents feel comfortable with the notion their daughter could be passionate about sports. She may have started as a reluctant feminist but by her own deeds showed that girls could do it all.

Notable H2H: vs. Austin 9-8 ...vs. Court 6-3 ...vs. Graf 6-7 ...vs. Goolagong Cawley 26-12 ...vs. Jaeger 17-3 ...vs. King 19-7 ...vs. Mandlikova 19-7 ...vs. Navratilova 37-43 ...vs. Shriver 18-3 ...vs. Wade 40-6

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