Over the course of more than 40 years, dozens of players have helped the WTA thrive. Then there are three titans who helped launch the tour from infancy to the preeminent women's professional sport in the world: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Though much has been written and broadcast about each player's iconic, cross-cultural impact, longstanding tennis historian Joel Drucker offers an in-depth analysis on an overlooked angle: what made each player spectacular inside the lines. As the French Open nears, fitting indeed to start with the Queen of Clay, seven-time Roland Garros champion Evert.
Chris Evert: Ancestor Of Contemporary Tennis (by Joel Drucker)
Tremendous athlete. Stylistic revolutionary. Wait a second. Chris Evert? Athletic? Revolutionary? Who are we talking about here? This is a woman who has more often been described as steady, consistent, measured.
Evert's numbers are off-the-charts: 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including at least one a year from 1974 to '86. One hundred fifty four singles titles. Two hundred sixty weeks ranked number one in the world. A Grand Slam semifinalist or better 52 times in 56 appearances. To play a sport at such a high level for so long - a sport where there are no role players, relief pitchers, situational substitutions - would by logic define someone as a great athlete. "She didn't look like a brilliant champion," said ex-pro Julie Heldman, "but she did everything right. When it counted she was likely to hit the ball really well."
There is the visibly apparent athlete, the person who can instantly play various sports with a degree of proficiency - throw, kick, shoot a basketball, promptly demonstrate strength, agility and speed. Evert's biggest rival, Martina Navratilova, of course, had these attributes in such abundance - perhaps more than any athlete in history - that Evert's own skills appear dwarfed by comparison. Evert herself has own been the one doing the dwarfing, constantly downplaying her physical prowess. But as Navratilova said, "Her athleticism is underrated. She would have been a great basketball player." Added King, "Chris had had great balance, great eyes, quick enough for the task at hand. That's a great athlete."
The way Evert imposed her athleticism on her opponents was at once vivid and elusive. On the clay courts of Holiday Park, the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida spot where her father was the tennis pro, Evert devoted hours to footwork, balance, posture, relentless focus and persistent depth and accuracy. That she learned on clay was a perfect fit for her patient, withdrawn personality. Said Tracy Austin, an Evert rival who built a similar playing style on the hardcourts of California, "With Chris you were certain it was going to be a long day at the office." But also, as ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, "You'd get a great workout, hit a lot of balls, be in just about every point - and win five games in two sets."
One interesting aspect of Evert's development was that her formative years were not spent drilling, but instead focused much more on playing points and practice sets. "At a young age," said Evert, "I learned how to put together a point. There's a science to it. You study the court, you study the opponent and you build that sense of anticipation. I wasn't a sprinter like Martina or Steffi. But I could see the court." Said Shriver, "It was an odd thing with Chris. She didn't seem that fast, but man, the amount of court you could hit into got small and the amount you had to cover felt big."
Roots Of Today's Game
Groundstrokes were the cornerstone of Evert's game. Given that power baseline tennis is the dominant mode of play on the contemporary WTA, it's easy to forget what a game-changer Evert was, that in large part her playing style is the ancestor to the brand of forceful grinding that defines contemporary tennis. Prior to Evert, the geography of the court was much different. Though the top women were all proficient from the ground, at heart they preferred winning points at the net, paving their way with efficient groundstrokes and exceptional transition skills. This held true whether a player was three inches shy of six feet tall like Margaret Court, or 5' 4" like King. While there was also room for steady baseliners such as Nancy Richey, even Richey reached the finals of the '69 US Open by serving and volleying on every point. Such was the style in an era when three of the majors were played on grass - and equally important, the one-handed backhand ruled.
Evert's two-hander changed everything. It was hard, accurate and repeatable in a way like no other shot in the game at that point. According to longstanding coach Steve Stefanki, "She hit it as a whole-bodied movement, like a Ted Williams baseball swing." King noted that, "Chris, like Jimmy Connors, had a parent who was a very skilled instructor. Both of them began playing at a very young age and since the racquet was too heavy they each started hitting backhands with two hands." Said Chris: "My dad wanted me to eventually hit with one hand. He thought it would be more flexible. But he saw how comfortable I was with the two-hander." King: "Jimmy Evert was smart enough to let his daughter stick with what was working for her."
In a way, Evert's belief that she wasn't an athlete streamlined her game to one of pinpoint precision. Dennis Ralston, her coach from 1981 to '87, said, "There was no one ever I worked with who had more discipline." Temperamentally uncomfortable as a classic scrambler - "I wasn't a sprinter," said Evert - she instead mastered strokes that were extraordinarily repeatable. As Tennis Channel analyst and ex-pro Mary Carillo said, "Everything with her was so clean. She had such good footwork and balance that she was able to hit an effective shot again and again and again. I couldn't get over how aware she was for every ball."
According to Evert, "I was surprised that more players didn't try to draw me into the net with short slices and drop shots." Easier said than done. Julie Anthony, a longstanding coach who competed against Evert in the '70s, said, "Playing Chrissie was like having someone stiff-arming you in the chest, just holding you back. She didn't topple you over, but you couldn't move forward." Said Rosie Casals, "If you weren't dictating, she was dictating to you. She wasn't going to make mistakes." Navratilova: "It was hard to find an opening." Over the course of one point after another, Evert would invariably break down each opponent's technique. "The strokes all looked the same," said Carillo, "but then she'd lift one a little higher, a little deeper, and all of a sudden you'd mishit." Frequent Evert scores: 6-4, 6-0; 7-5, 6-1; 7-6, 6-2.
Early Years Of Dominance
By the end of 1974, at the age of 20, Evert was number one in the world. Her rivals constantly sought to solve the problems posed by her game. Early on, Richey was just about the only player able to outsteady Evert. But a 12-year age gap between the two eventually turned the tide in Evert's favor. Evert was also aided by the US Open's decision to shift from grass to clay for the 1975 US Open. Said King, "On red clay I'd have had a chance, but the Har-Tru that was used in the US, it was hard just to get points against Chris."
"Competing against Chris taught me so much," said Navratilova. "I had to learn to be patient and keep my emotions under control. All of my strokes and tactics and fitness had to get better."
The Shifting Picture
The summer of 1979 was a pivotal time in Evert's career. It began at Wimbledon, when Navratilova beat her in the finals for the second straight year. It finished at the US Open. Austin earlier in the spring had snapped Evert's 125-match claycourt winning streak. Now, in New York, Austin ended Evert's four-year-hold on the title with a convincing straight set win. Said Austin, "It was like a chess match when we played each other. We were going to outmaneuver each other."
In the wake of that US Open final, Austin won four straight matches versus Evert without dropping a set. It was one thing for Evert to be beaten by the aggressive net play of a Navratilova. But to encounter someone with a similar but more effective playing style? That was a jolt. According to Evert, "When Tracy came along and started beating me is when I upped my aggressive game. I had to up my aggression, take that away from her." The Evert-Austin 1980 US Open semi was probably the most important match of Evert's career. After losing the first set 6-4, Evert went on a tear, methodically dissecting her opponent, dropping just two games.
A year later, though, Navratilova had, in her words, "got religion" and began to radically overhaul everything from her strokes to embracing an enhanced off-court fitness routine to diet - the complete fitness revolution that by now is considered routine for any aspiring tennis player. In the spring of 1981, at Amelia Island, Evert had shredded Navratilova, 6-0, 6-0. But at their meeting, in the semis of that year's US Open, the two played a gem, Navratilova winning 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. Navratilova would also cap the year with a victory over Evert in the finals of the Australian Open, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.
Said Evert, "Martina was my rival and I saw what she was doing, going to the gym. So I had to get physically stronger, to work on my legs to get more spring and power, to make my upper body stronger to get more pace on my serve and groundstrokes."
Hour after hour, be in the gym, on the track, or on the court, Evert's competitive firepower burned bright. "She'd always want to do more," said Ralston. "Hit more balls, more serves, more groundstrokes."
Better At Two Than One
As Navratilova's attacking game became more forceful, Ralston urged Evert to be more aggressive. She had always been a skilled volleyer, but being passed or lobbed or forced to be agile had left Evert feeling exposed, vulnerable in ways she didn't care for. Said Ralston, "I told her it didn't matter what people thought. What mattered was that coming in from time to time was going to keep Martina back, keep Martina from attacking her and get Martina feeling bad about missing a passing shot or losing a point from the baseline."
So commenced an odd paradox of the competitive process. In her ascent, during her peak years as the world's best, the genius of Evert's game was difficult to determine, as it appeared she'd mostly kept more balls in play than her old-school opponents. This was the Evert who versus Navratilova won 20 of their first 24 matches. But as Navratilova upped the ante - winning 39 of their last 56 - the quality of Evert's play rose impressively. Said Evert, "I definitely played better later in my career. In a way it was like going back to the drawing board."
Among Evert's finest late career efforts was a sparkling 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 triumph over Navratilova in the finals of the 1985 French Open. A year earlier on the same court, she had been thoroughly outclassed by Navratilova, winning just four games. But on this day, Evert's time spent lifting weights, on the track and working with Ralston on everything from agility to shot selection, had all paid off.
There remained throughout the intangible fire that burns within every champion. Said Heldman, "She always seemed to hit the ball that much better on a big point." The last time Evert won a match at a Grand Slam tournament came in the round of 16 at the 1989 US Open versus Monica Seles. Seles then was 15 but had already made a major splash, including a win over Evert and a run to the semis of the French Open. But on this day, Evert was exquisitely dialed-in, again and again arriving in perfect position to counter Seles' drives and send her younger rival on the run. The emphatic 6-0, 6-2 tally underscored Evert's relentless focus.
At a 1986 Virginia Slims tournament, a reporter asked Evert to compare her game versus her stylistic opposite, the mercurial Hana Mandlikova. When the reporter pointed out that Mandlikova hit the ball harder than Evert, Evert's eyes narrowed considerably. Though she said nothing, the message was clear: Are you really kidding me? "Chris Evert was all about sustainability," said Stefanki, "shot after shot, point after point, game after game, match after match. No one could do that better than her."
Joel Drucker has been covering tennis for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis Channel, Tennis Magazine, USTA Magazine, CBS and HBO. He is also author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.