By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
When Chris Evert was an eighth-grader at St. Anthony’s in Fort Lauderdale, she tried out for cheerleading and made the squad. It turned out to be the break point of what would become the winningest tennis career of all time.
“I remember I came home and I said, ‘Oh! I made cheerleading!’ I was so excited,” she says. “I was one of the girls.”
But under the intense tennis tutelage of her father and coach, Jimmy Evert, “one of the girls” would never be who Chrissie Evert was.
“My dad said, ‘Well, what does that entail?’ And I go, just two or three afternoons a week, you know, for the basketball games. And he looked at me and he goes: ‘Yeah, well, I don’t think so. You have to make a decision between tennis and cheerleading, ’cause that’s taking two or three afternoons off your training. You have to decide how serious you are.’”
“And, um, then I decided how serious I was.”
Evert may not have gotten to strut her stuff on the basketball court, but she did go on to command the tennis court like no woman ever had. Still today she owns the highest winning percentage — .900 — of any player in history. Her conquests on the court could fill a couple of these pages, but let’s just leave it here: Only her greatest rival, Martina Navratilova, has kept her from being the player with the most singles titles ever — and that’s only by 10 (167-157).
Having begun taking lessons at age 5 with her tennis-pro dad at Holiday Park, she developed her trademark two-handed backhand and became the No. 1 ranked under-14 girl in the country. As a high school senior, she won her first pro paycheck — $10,000 for first-place plus a new Cutlass Supreme — in Fort Lauderdale.
“This time I’m accepting the money,” Evert told The New York Times then, referring to the estimated $60,000 she had to pass up the year before when she was too young to go pro. “I’m going to take the check and run home to make sure no one takes it from me.”
She soon became our undisputed hometown hero and our biggest international star. Years before Dan Marino settled in Broward County, Evert was the sports legend who made us proud. She may have been known around the tennis world as the Ice Maiden and the Human Backboard, but here she was simply our Chrissie.
Evert’s South Florida roots eventually spread out northward to Boca Raton, where she and much of her family still reside, and where she owns and manages the Evert Tennis Academy with her brother John. And as she has for 30 years now, this month she will host her annual Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic in Delray Beach, which last year raised $800,000 to combat drug abuse and child neglect in the state.
Evert spoke with City & Shore PRIME just days after her smooth voice and authoritative presence elevated ESPN’s U.S. Open coverage.
Congratulations on calling a great Open. Have you recovered yet?
It’s a three-week job and I think my body is so used to two-week Grand Slams, that for a day or two, it’s shut off. My mind and my brain are only, you know, registered for two weeks.
I’d imagine you’re really enjoying this stage of your career, still being a tennis personality without the rigors of the court — or would you still rather be on the court?
I’m 64 and I still have some good jobs going, so I don’t take that for granted. I signed up with ESPN about eight years ago. It’s great ’cause I just do the Grand Slams and maybe two other tournaments. It’s a lot of fun. I’m not going to take on anything at this stage in my life if it’s not fun.
And giving back is very gratifying, too, like this pro-am tournament. It’s developed into an event the players and celebrities love. It’s a fun weekend and we raise money for a great cause. It’s something we’ve been very proud of. At some point everybody needs to give back. I don’t care if it’s the Salvation Army or canned goods or going to nursing homes. You get to a point where you feel like, OK, I’m just taking, taking, taking, and I don’t feel good about myself. And it gives you peace of mind that you are giving back to people who need our help.
Your ties to South Florida go back to your birth in Fort Lauderdale. What was it like for you growing up there?
Listen, my dad — I owe it all to him. He played the circuit a little bit. He was No. 1 on the Notre Dame tennis team. He won the U.S. Indoors. He was really a good player. He came down to Florida with my mom to teach tennis. He came from Chicago and she came from New Rochelle, N.Y. They met at a wedding, got married and came down here to — it was called South Side in Fort Lauderdale at the time. And later on, he became the head pro at Holiday Park.
They had little money. I remember our first house was in Wilton Manors and later on we lived near Holiday Park. They had five kids and he taught all of them how to play tennis. He brought all of us after school to Holiday Park to provide a safe haven for us and to keep an eye on us — keep us off the streets maybe even. Three of my siblings played No. 1 for their colleges and my dad didn’t have to pay a cent for it. I think maybe he was a little more proud of not having to pay for college for his kids than he was of my success. [Laughs.]
What was it like to have your father as your coach?
It was great. Yup. He never once got mad if I lost a match. He’d be quiet if I lost and he knew I could win. There’s a delicate line between being a coach and being a father. And he did both roles beautifully. I have no complaints whatsoever.
I remember my dad plucking me from school and bringing me over to Holiday Park. And I remember being very mad at him at 5 years old because he took me away from my friends. But, of course, I couldn’t say anything because I was petrified of him. He was really strict and it was the generation when you didn’t answer your parents back — unlike now. So I remember keeping that inside. But he brought me and my brothers over to Holiday Park and would throw balls and then hit balls out of a grocery cart.
Slowly I developed friendships there and then I started playing tournaments and I liked winning. Then fast forward, you know, it just developed. I worked hard in those days. Again, only Florida and California kids could play full-time. There were no indoor courts, so all the other kids in the country would play for, what, six months and then not play for six months. So I started winning — the state tournament and then the nationals. I just was hungry. I was just really hungry to continue to win.
Was playing tennis something you were drawn to at the beginning or was it just something your dad was making you do?
Well, in the beginning I was 5 or 6. I had no emotion whatsoever about tennis. It was just something that I did because he wanted me to do it. Probably most of my childhood I played for him. Not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t really understand where it would lead me. And then when I started playing state tournaments when I was about 10 or 11, I think I understood: OK, I practice, and as a reward we get to travel, and stay at a hotel with a pool. Those little things were such luxuries.
You didn’t have a pool?
No. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. My dad was working as a teaching tennis pro in the ’60s. There wasn’t a lot of money in that job. It was like $5 a lesson.
And I imagine your mom didn’t work?
Nope. My mom was taking care of us. We weren’t deprived of anything.
Did your mom play?
Yeah. She was a good club player. But I think once I started winning, I felt like I was good at something. You feel good about yourself when you do something well as a kid. This whole thing about self-esteem, it’s true. It’s important to work at something, set goals. All those things came into my junior tennis — and then the travel! My dad would say, you won the state and now you qualify for the nationals. And we drove to Chattanooga, Tenn., with five kids in a car, two parents and a mattress in the back. Holiday Inn was like The Ritz back then. So we got to stay at a hotel with vibrating beds — you paid a quarter for the bed to vibrate. I couldn’t have been happier. [Laughs.]
Did your talent make you the favorite child?
No, not at all. All my siblings were No. 1 in the country or in the state in their age group, too. Everybody was successful in my family. When I turned pro and started making millions of dollars, my dad didn’t want anybody else to manage me. I think my parents did a great job of paying attention to everybody. I mean, when I came home after winning a Grand Slam, I still had to fold the wash and empty the dishwasher.
So, what was a normal teenage day for you?
Again, after school, I go right over to Holiday Park. Back in the day there was no off-court training. You just played tennis. So I would just hit for like two hours. And I played four hours on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t go to a lot of dances and parties, and the beach on the weekends with the kids. But I knew I would make up for it as I got older, and I felt like it was still OK. I still had my girlfriends. I just didn’t spend a whole lot of time with them, but they were still my girlfriends. So … it was as normal as it could be.
Did you enjoy your high school years at St. Thomas Aquinas?
Yeah, it was fine. Listen, in high school when I started to become successful and famous, it was not as easy for me. I didn’t go to every party — but I did go to prom one year. Yay! [Laughs.] It was like living in two different worlds. The world of professional tennis, which was mostly adults. And then I’d come back to school and be a school kid. I think everybody knew me, but I wasn’t comfortable with the attention. I was more on the shy side.
During the Open, you said you arrived home from a tournament and were greeted by the entire student body?
And it’s so funny ’cause I always had a crush on the student council president and he never even looked at me. And then I get to the semis of the U.S. Open, I fly home and the whole school is waiting for me at the airport. I went right to the school from the airport and into the gym. They were presenting me with gifts and I had to make a speech. And he was emceeing, and then all of a sudden, he wanted to date me. [Laughs.] I’ll never forget that.
Was there one particular moment when you realized you were going to be a pro?
Well, I had just turned 14 years old, playing in the Austin Smith Tournament that my dad ran. It was a professional tournament and he put me in. I reached the semifinals and I lost to Mary Ann Eisel, who was ranked No. 4 in the country as a pro. But I lost in three sets, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1. And I realized, hey, there’s not that much difference between me and the pros.
For all your epic battles with Martina, it’s really heartening to see how close you two are. For someone as competitive as yourself, how does that happen?
I think we’re good people. I think we’re kind and I think we’re good people. It wasn’t only after we retired. While we were playing, I would say the last five years, we got close because she and I were the last ones left in a tournament. We’d come back in the locker room and one of us was sad, one of us was happy, and one would comfort the other one, put their arm around them or say I’m sorry. If I beat Martina, I’d be sad for her. If she beat me, she’d be sad for me. Because we were human. We grew to be emotional women who had that camaraderie, that compassion. I wanted to beat her brains out on the court, but once we stepped off the court, we were able to compartmentalize it. Now when we see each other, we just laugh, have a glass of wine. She would do anything for me and I would do anything for her. She’s pretty awesome.
O N L I N E B O N U S
At the Open you were asked if you knew as a teenager that you changed the course of women’s tennis, and you said, ‘No, I was a nice Catholic girl.’ What did you mean by that?
I don’t know if that was the right answer. I was very isolated and protected by my parents, that’s what I meant. My dad just shunned controversy. When I came up, women’s liberation was happening and women were burning bras on TV. I thought they were just a bunch of troublemakers. I didn’t really understand what that was all about until I went out on the circuit when I was 17, 18 years old.
You also said that for the first two years, none of the women on the tour would talk to you.
Yep. At 15 I beat Margaret Court, who had just won the Grand Slam. She was No. 1 in the world. I was really the first junior girl to come along and beat the women. So they just saw me as somebody taking all the press away from them. I think it was more fear than anything else. Actually it was Billie Jean [King] who had a meeting with them and said, listen, she’s putting money in our pockets, she’s the future of tennis, deal with it. She always had the vision.
I also heard you told John McEnroe that he was always your father’s favorite and that you didn’t understand why in that case he taught you to be unemotional on the court.
Keep everything in, get your opponent frustrated, don’t let them see how you feel — it worked for me perfectly. But it was funny because I walked in one day when I was on the tour for like 15 years and I heard my dad laughing. He was watching John and I said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ And he goes: ‘This guy’s so funny. He’s really got personality. He’s my favorite player.’ I said: ‘Dad! What are you talking about? You told me never to show emotion!’ And he goes, ‘You’re my daughter.’
What keeps you in South Florida?
My family’s here. I have a sister that lives 15 minutes away. I have two brothers that live here. My mom lives here. My kids come in and out. My brother and I own a tennis academy and manage it for like 25 years now, which I go to every day. That’s like home for me. So I’m on the court a good four days a week, either hitting with the kids or just coaching them. And that has been a great thing for me, as far as life after tennis. To have a tennis academy and teach, mentor and coach kids, that’s been really a lot of fun. I go to Grand Slams and I have four or five endorsements that I travel for. And, when I’m home, I’m a homebody. I don’t go out that much. I just stay in and eat. Spend time with my family. Pretty quiet life.
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I F Y O U GO
Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert will mark 30 years as a champion for at-risk children Nov. 22-24 when she hosts her Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic, sponsored by City & Shore magazine. Since 1989 the event has raised over $25 million to combat drug abuse and child neglect in the state.
Among the celebrities holding court at the Delray Beach Tennis Center will be Chris Noth, Jon Lovitz and Hélio Castroneves, with Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame performing at the black-tie gala on Nov. 23 at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Proceeds from the event are matched by the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida and distributed to programs it funds and to the Drug Abuse Foundation of Palm Beach County.
Tickets to the matches range from $20 general admission to $900 for skyview box seats, and are $750 per person for the gala. To purchase tickets, visit ChrisEvert.org/Tickets. For more info, visit ChrisEvert.org or call 561-394-2400.