Editor’s note: This story, one of our staff favorites mentioned in City & Shore’s 15th Anniversary issue, first appeared in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of the magazine.
By Nicole Sterghos Brochu
City & Shore Magazine
The treasured file is a mother’s paper trail to self-discovery, perhaps the best evidence of what means the most these days to a world-renowned athlete once dubbed the Ice Princess for her cool on and off the court.
The frosty demeanor has long since melted, giving way to a passion more fulfilling than any crystal trophy, more lasting than any winning record, more gut-wrenching than any three-set match.
Ask Chris Evert about the trophies from an unmatched career at the baseline and she’ll tell you she doesn’t have a clue where most of them are. But she knows right where she keeps the honor-roll report card that Alex, now 12, brought home from the fifth grade. Or the book of poems Nicky, 9, wrote two years ago. Especially the hand-drawn Mother’s Day card from Colton, 7, signed, “I love you, Mom.”
“On the circuit, I was pampered and spoiled,” she says, 14 years after stepping off the court and heading for a richer calling. “I always knew it was B.S.”
She and her husband, former U.S. Olympic skier Andy Mill, say they were only too happy to leave the “Me Period” behind for the anonymous existence of carpools and homework assignments, giving up face time on television to guide their kids over the potholes of childhood.
Don’t be fooled. These are not your typical parents. Their new home on five acres in West Boca comes complete with swimming pool, regulation tennis court, putting green and 14,000 square feet of living space. They call a former president their friend. Rumors of a breakup made national headlines
But they display a normalcy that transcends the grandeur. They talk openly about their marriage. They brag about their kids. Even a story about a night spent at the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom has overtones of ordinary awe. They come from a different place, but like parents the world over, they worry about walking the line between disciplinarian and friend.
“It’s not an easy transition,” Mill concedes of going from star athlete to camp counselor, “but it’s the most worthwhile thing you’ll ever do.”
So worthwhile that in February, the 48-year-old Evert resigned after 13 years as NBC’s commentator at Wimbledon and the French Open so she wouldn’t have to miss out on the last week of school.
So worthwhile that Mill, 50, recently walked away from traveling the world producing and hosting fishing shows for the Outdoor Sports Network to help the boys compete on the dirt motorbike circuit.
So worthwhile that giving up their careers to focus on the family has, after 15 years of marriage and 12 years as parents, become second-nature, not sacrifice.
“With kids and marriage, you have to put in time,” Evert says, “and you have to have good instincts.”
She credits her value system to her own parents, a strict father, Jimmy, who taught her discipline on the tennis courts of Fort Lauderdale, and a charity-minded mother, Colette, who regularly dragged her five children carrying their old clothes to the Salvation Army. The close-knit Evert clan served as the rising tennis star’s refuge from the rigor of the courts and the heat of an international spotlight.
“It’s an individual sport, so you can’t have a lot of friends,” says John Evert, 42, Chris’ younger brother, who runs their Evert Tennis Academy in West Boca. “You have to be very selfish. But when she was with her family, she wasn’t selfish. That was her time to give back.”
She has been giving back, to her family and her community, ever since, stepping off the professional circuit in 1989. That same year she started the Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic, which still draws the likes of former President George Bush and actor Matthew Perry and has raised nearly $11 million to fight drug abuse and assist Florida’s abused and neglected children.
Evert also spends three mornings a week at the tennis academy, hitting balls with promising young players and teaching them mental toughness. Although she quit broadcasting, she has taken to the role of spokeswoman for United Airlines and Citracal calcium supplement.
But mostly, her life these days is consumed by family. She and Andy have never had live-in help or a full-time maid, preferring not to share their home with a stranger or allow anyone else to discipline their children. Afternoons they gather at Ramp 48, an indoor skate park in Pompano Beach. On the weekends they race motorbikes in Dania Beach. Summers and winter breaks they head to Aspen, a mountain skiing town where Mill grew up. A fun evening at home is ordering pizza and watching Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy on their big-screen TV.
Only recently, in September, did the parents steal away for a rare weekend of what Mill calls “hand-holding time,” jetting off to Kennebunkport, Maine to visit the 41st president of the United States.
To Evert, Bush is not the former leader of the free world, but a confidante, a dear friend and, even at 80 years old, a worthy opponent on the tennis court. She has been to Camp David, danced at the White House and partied at Kennebunkport but is still starstruck about the time she and Andy slept in the Lincoln Bedroom.
“Andy spent the night waiting up for Lincoln’s ghost, and I was stuffing the (White House) stationery in my purse,” she remembers.
The anecdote offers a glimpse into the personality that has captivated her admirers for decades, even so many years after leaving center court: Depsite her fame, she’s still just Chrissie.
Like when she was talking with President Bill Clinton at a White House dinner about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, anxious to say something reassuring, something he’d remember Chris Evert by. So she put a hand on his arm and said, “Don’t worry, we all have skeletons in our closet. I do too.”
“Is that the stupidest, most gullible thing ever?” Evert says now, embarrassed but not too proud to expose an occasional clumsiness. Don’t ask her to expound on the skeletons though. Some things are off-limits.
“I’ve done some stupid things and crazy things, just like every normal 21-year-old,” she says simply. “I knew how to have a good time.”
Still having a good time, she is older now, the easy smile creasing the famous face. But she is as lithe as ever, not an ounce of fat on her tone frame, her muscular legs still powering her from side to side as she volleys with students a third her age at the Evert Tennis Academy.
Sweat drips off her face, but she doesn’t even breathe heavily. She stops for an occasional drink of water, maybe a moment in a shaded chair, then bounds over to the next court to take on another protégé. If no one pointed out the icon with the short blond hair tucked tight under a ball cap, she’d easily be mistaken for just another coach, except for the sheer skill and drive.
But she is more ordinary than legend.
So ordinary that, using a pillowcase rather than an umbrella to shield against the rain, she blends in with other parents after climbing out of a GMC Yukon at Ramp 48.
So ordinary that a young girl leans over from a neighboring table at the skate park to ask for help on her homework, and Evert gladly obliges.
So ordinary that her children are oblivious to her celebrity.
“She’s always just been Mom to me,” says Alex, talking a reluctant break between tricks on his skateboard.
Mill has always understood that it is his wife’s ability to live comfortably in both worlds that makes her so enduring.
“She was America’s sweetheart who lived next door who everybody wanted to touch and be a part of and have as a friend,” he says. “It’s just that she’s very famous and very likable and very lovable.
“How she picked me to marry her, I have no idea.”
Maybe it’s those drop-dead good looks, indifferent even to middle age, that does it for her.
But Mill and Evert are also like-minded. Both raised in economically modest and strict households, they excelled at athletics, became international stars and dealt well with fame. They love the outdoors, stay fit with diet and exercise and appreciate the balance it takes to make sure each gets a sense of accomplishment out of the day.
“Every once in a while, when I find myself doing this,” says Evert, simulating an eyebrow-raised scan of a hot guy, “I think, When am I ever going to find anyone better than Andy for me? We’re so compatible.”
It was a connection they noticed when they first met 17 years ago at a ski resort in Aspen. They were both in estranged first marriages and heading for divorce.
“The last thing either of us wanted was a romance, but we just had so much in common, we became best friends,” Mill says. “It took me, like, two weeks to hold her hand, and Chrissie started to think something was wrong. I had no idea. I had been married for eight years, and I just didn’t know how to date anymore.”
When he found himself falling in love, he had to question whether it was Chrissie or her fame that touched his heart. “Am I falling in love with somebody famous and successful, or am I falling in love with this person I want to spend the rest of my life with?” he asked himself. “Oh, yeah, I weighed that out severely. The last thing I wanted to do was end up in another divorce.”
Nearly two decades later, Evert and Mill think they know what it takes to have a successful marriage.
“I’m not going to tell you we’ve never had an argument, because I think successful relationships butt heads, and the ones who fail never argue because then the trash can fills up and when it tips over, s — hits the fan,” Mill says.
“We scream at each other a lot,” adds Evert, “you know, ‘Don’t just throw your clothes on the floor.’ But at the end of the day, we’re fine, because we know it wasn’t important.”
Like most couples, they’ve weathered some rough patches. With Mill gone a lot on fishing trips for his TV show, Evert says she “went through a nagging period. Then I stopped nagging, but that wasn’t good either, because I was like, ‘Who cares? I’ll just do it myself.” But you have to hang in there. You’ve got to keep being together and keep talking. If there’s any storm, weather the storm.”
Those who do, she says, “find a deeper commitment.”
They say they’ve never been to marriage counselor, never been close to divorce. That’s why it was so hurtful when a New York Post columnist, citing unnamed sources, reported the couple had split in July 2001.
“I was kind of devastated,” Evert says. “We work at it and had built a great relationship, and someone says something like that.”
Mill called the columnist the day the story ran, telling him, “There has never been one day when our marriage was in trouble.” Then he gave the writer his phone number and told him to call if he had any questions in the future.
He still goes on fishing trips, for fun now not for work, but Mill is home much more often, and Evert says she relishes the time together.
“I think a little bit away from each other is good, but a lot is not. You’re not together to communicate, handle things,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know him again.”
Now they make sure to enjoy a date night every weekend, sending the kids out with friends until 10 p.m. They go out, eat sushi, have a cocktail, maybe see a movie, then return home by 8:30 and have the house to themselves.
“It’s nice,” Evert says. “I have the perfect life. Right now, this stage, it’s the best it’s been since the kids were born.”
Until two years when her youngest started kindergarten, Evert had at least one child home with her for 10 years. When Colton went to school, she was crushed.
Evert has since learned to appreciate the time to herself, taking up Bikram yoga and spending mornings at the tennis academy.
“She’s so intense, so competitive. It’s hilarious,” says Michael O’Shea, 15, an academy student from Maui.
“I’m just amazed she can still play as well as she does,” says Diana Srebrovic, 19, from Canada. “She almost has more energy than any of us do. She’s like the Energizer battery.”
The relatively small tennis academy has a family atmosphere and reputation for excellence. It hosts 25 to 30 boarders from around the world and 25 South Florida students who attend after school. About a dozen make it to the national championships each year.
But it is the impression Evert makes on her own children that means the most to her. That the boys show pride in the person she has become is beyond her expectations.
In September, when she was honored at the U.S. Open as one if its four greatest singles players ever, Evert’s two older boys were in the stands. As the same crowd that cheered for new champ Andy Roddick roared for Evert, young Nicky remembers thinking, Wow, that’s my mom!
Evert isn’t getting all the acclaim. When Alex had to describe his hero for class recently, he wrote about his dad.
“With your children, you always butt heads. So you never know how you stand in their eyes,” says Mill, “until something like that surprises you.”
Moments like that top any down-hill run or Grand Slam title. Those are the moments that find their way into a treasured file.