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Chris Evert // Off the court and off the cuff

One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century breezed over to a table on the patio deck, shook hands with everyone, and asked the photographer where he wanted her to sit.

"Is this okay?" she asked. "If the light's bad, I can move. No problem."

There were other photographers waiting, and with each one, she was the same. Patient, polite and obliging.

But that has always been Chris Evert's style.

It was Thursday morning, and Evert was doing a series of interviews to help promote the Virginia Slims Legends Tour stop at the Saddlebrook Resort, Saturday and Sunday. Proceeds from the tournament, which also includes Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Tracy Austin, will benefit the Tampa AIDS Network and the AIDS Community Project of Tampa.

If you're 16 or younger, you've probably never seen her two-handed backhand, except maybe on some old ESPN footage. But no one was as consistent as Chris Evert. She was ranked No. 1 in the world for eight years during 1975-85, and until the day in 1989 when she retired, she was never ranked lower than fourth.

During her 20-year career, she won 157 singles titles, 18 Grand Slam titles, and earned more than $8-million in prize money.

The woman known for years simply as "Chrissie" is 42 now and a mother of three boys. She looks fitter than when she was playing.

In this interview with the Times, she talked about her family, her fame _ and her aura.

Times: So I hear you had your aura read recently at Canyon Ranch, that health resort in Arizona. What was that all about?

Evert: It was amazing. The woman was right on about every aspect of my life.

Times: What do you mean?

Evert: Did you ever have your auras read?

Times: Uh . . . I don't even know where my auras are. And I'm certainly not going to let some strange woman . . .

Evert: No, no. You have like seven or eight of them, things like spirituality, career, health. And this woman was right on every single one of them; about my strengths and weaknesses and my fears _ things people wouldn't know about me. Like my relationship with my parents. All these dark secrets that everybody has.

Times: Sort of like Madame LaRue? A fortuneteller?

Evert: But she's not a fortuneteller. She sits back and her eyes roll back in her head. You can see the whites of her eyes. I had to say my name three times, and then she said the first aura she saw was my favorite color. And it was lavender. She was right.

Times: That's some talent. The eye thing, I mean.

Evert: She knew I had children, but she didn't say they were three boys. She admitted that she's not a fortuneteller. But Canyon Ranch is not going to hire a fluke, right?

Times: Well, I can't say . . .

Evert: My sister and my two girlfriends all said she was right on with them, too. She told my sister she doesn't have any children, but she had animals. Two dogs. And she was right. How is she going to find all that out?

Times: Maybe there are some things we just can't explain.

Evert: She really has a gift. You should go.

Times: I don't see that. But why did you go?

Evert: I love that kind of stuff. I don't know if it's a woman thing, but I think we're all searching for our inner selves, and spirituality is sort of the next step in the metamorphosis of my life. I put everything into my career, and now I'm putting everything into my family.

And after the kids are grown, that's what your 50s are. I think women in their 50s lose their physical aspects, but they gain inner and spiritual aspects.

Times: Don't they try to hold on to their physical aspects, too?

Evert: Well, some of them do. But not everybody can afford a face lift.

Times: Is that something you'd ever consider?

Evert: A face lift?

Times: Yeah.

Evert: No. I wouldn't do it.

Times: Not that you need one.

Evert: I'm not saying all plastic surgery is bad. And I'm not saying in 10 years I might not look into an eyelift. But liposuction and all that stuff . . . go out and run five miles.

Times: Let's talk about your kids for a moment. Your father steered you into tennis. What about your boys? There's Alex (5), Nicholas (2{) and Colton (8 months). Tennis? Golf? Baseball?

Evert: I don't believe every child is cut out for the life that I led. I have four brothers and sisters, and it didn't work for them. And it wasn't, by any means, because of a lack of talent. I'm not a great believer in pressure at a young age.

Times: Is that because of what you experienced?

Evert: Yeah. And I think I handled the pressure. My mom often said to me, "I'm glad it was you for the simple reason that you could handle it." But it wasn't always easy. I mean, I remember being really nervous competing in junior tournaments. And when you're young, you don't know where to channel it.

So I've sort of gone in the opposite direction. Alex does karate, and he loves it. I watch him and support him, but his teacher wanted him to be in a tournament, and I said, "I don't think so. He's 5 years old, and that's kind of young to be in a tournament."

It's one thing to be in Little League where you're on a team. You win together. You lose together. But this one-on-one winning and losing at 5 years old, I'm dead set against, actually.

Times: Have you ever thought about where you'd be if your father hadn't steered you toward tennis?

Evert: I needed to be pushed into something. I talked to Billie Jean King about this once, and she said she knew right away she was a go-getter and she was going to be aggressive and pursue her dreams.

My dad had to take me over (to the courts) every day or else I'd want to play with my girlfriends. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I wasn't sure about this life until I was 15 or 16. Then I had success and I liked it.

But if I hadn't gotten into tennis, I would've been a child psychologist or a teacher or dealt with kids in some way.

Times: You retired at age 34, but you must have started to think, at some earlier point, that tennis wasn't as much fun as it had been. When did you know it was time to get out?

Evert: About two years earlier. I felt it was like beating my head against the wall. I wasn't going to improve. I hit my stride, I peaked, and the players were only getting better. I was struggling to stay even.

Times: Sure, but you were also making about $5-million a year, and you were ranked fourth in the world.

Evert: Yes, but that's one of the reasons I retired. I had that pride. I wasn't going to retire ranked 100 and washed up and a real has-been. "Why is she out there?" "Oh, for the money." "Well, doesn't she have enough?"

And meeting Andy (Mill), he helped me a lot. He was forced out of his profession (skiing) because of a broken back, broken neck and broken leg. He had one fall, and he was gone. He said to me, "Just stay in it as long as you can. A career is short-lived. Just try to find enjoyment." And I did. But it was so up and down. I'd get to the semis of the U.S. Open and the next week I'd lose in the second round.

I had been so consistent, and then I wasn't any more.

Times: I have to ask you about the time you were playing Billie Jean at Wimbledon. It was the finals, and you had won the first set and were leading 3-love in the second. You had just broken up with Jimmy Connors, and you looked up in the stands and saw him with Susan George, the British actress. You ended up losing the match. Remember that?

Evert: Jimmy hates when I talk about that because it makes him look like a bad guy, and he wasn't. We had broken up. He could do whatever he wanted to. I think my vulnerability. . . . I always let my emotions come first. And that's not so bad.

Times: You married John Lloyd when you were 24, got divorced seven years later, and within a year, you both found somebody new.

Evert: Yeah, we also had children at the same time, and we're still friends. Even Jimmy and Patty (Connors' wife) and I get along. That's one thing about my life. There's not one person in this world that I hate. And even if I'm really p__- off at somebody, I only feel that way for a short time.

Hating someone is a waste. It really is.

Times: Was it Martina who introduced you to Andy?

Evert: Actually, I met him through Martina. She had bought a house in Aspen, and she knew I was going through a divorce and my dad was hardly speaking to me _ my mom and dad loved John _ and I was just really depressed. And she said, "Come out to Aspen."

Well, I'm not into the Aspen scene, but finally, I had such a dismal, depressing Christmas that I called her up and said, "Okay, I'm coming out." I got my best girlfriend (Ana Leird), and we went out and stayed with Martina. Martina brought us to the beginners slope the first two days, and then she brought us to the top of Aspen Mountain and said, "See you later."

That's when Andy saw us. He took one look at Ana and me, saw how petrified we were, and he skiied down the mountain with us. I think Martina thought we were just going to pick the sport up. But I don't like sliding. I'm not used to sliding.

Times: Even on clay?

Evert: This is true. I guess I am used to sliding. But not on skis.

Times: You've said people don't understand what it's like to have all the attention, and that you never felt more alone than in 1976, after you won Wimbledon.

Evert: I was 21 and really depressed. I had just won the biggest tournament in the world and I went back to an empty hotel room and thought, "Is this all there is?"

I sort of made up my mind then that I was going to work on my relationships more _ friendships, everything. I was just so isolated back then. You have no idea. You really do pay a price for fame.

Sometimes, when you go through a divorce and you're in the public eye, you feel like you're being raped by the media. And people think the money is supposed to cushion that. But it really doesn't.

Don't get me wrong _ you put yourself in that position. But people shouldn't wish too much for something they don't have.

Times: At this stage of your life, are you now at the point where you can say no to things you don't want to do?

Evert: Yes, but I'm panicking about this year because I've been with my family full time for a year. Now I've got to play tournaments, I've got a five-year contract with NBC . . . half of me wants to cancel out everything and just be with my kids.

But I still look at this year, and I'm only working full time for three months. Here I am complaining about that!

Times: Right, but the first five or six years of child's life are really important.

Evert: Oh, I know. And I love being there for the kids _ picking them up from school, taking them to karate. . . .

Times: You're a soccer mom!

Evert: And I love it.

Times: Three boys. Just how difficult is that?

Evert: With two you have control because there's mom and dad. But we had to leave Colton at home, and he's not getting as much of my attention as the other two because they're older and they need me. Colton hasn't been aware until this month. Now, when I leave the room, he cries. He wants Mom.

So the attention will have to shift now. You have to know when to shift. You can't always say, "The four of us are going to the park." You have to spend time with them individually.

Times: The kids of famous parents sometimes have a difficult time finding their own identity. Does that worry you?

Evert: My fame is at a different level now. People know my name, but I'm telling you, I don't have the kind of fame that people run up to me and take my picture and make a big fuss. I have the kind of fame where people sit back and say, "Yeah, that's Chris Evert." People come up to me and say they miss me, but it's a calmer kind of relationship.

My kids know something's up, but it's still comfortable.

(Behind Evert's back, about 30 feet away, a father and his two young children are headed toward the resort. One of the children squeals when he sees something on the sidewalk. Instinctively, Evert turns toward the sound.)

Times: I knew you were going to do that. I should work at Canyon Ranch.

Evert: (laughing) Yeah . . . I guess that's the parent in me.

Times: You've really changed a lot in the last five or six years, haven't you?

Evert: You know, I like the way I am now better than when I was competing. It's funny. Sometimes when I'm out there playing in these events, I don't like the emotions that surface. The competitiveness comes back again because Martina and Pam Shriver and Zina (Garrison Jackson) are still great players, and I feel my level of play has to go up.

Times: But is that a bad thing?

Evert: No, it's just that I was kind of cruising along, and it was fun for me. But now, it has gotten so competitive. It's good for Virginia Slims, but shoot, I'm 42 years old. Now I have to go out and practice more. And I still don't like when I don't play well. I thought motherhood would change that.

Times: But that's who you are.

Evert: It is. And I still love it. It's just getting harder and harder to do.

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