February 26, 2006
Chris Evert: Paradigm of Consistency
American Set the Standard for Sustained Excellence
Grand Slam Results
End-of-Year Top 10 Rankings
By David McPherson
If there is one trait all of the Open Era Greats have shared, it has been their ability to produce outstanding, top-level tennis not for one or two years, but repeatedly over more than a decade in some cases. Producing such results – and achieving legendary status – obviously requires much more than talent alone, and it would certainly be possible to create a list of a dozen or more extremely gifted individuals who never achieved what was expected of them.
Those who have succeeded in not only reaching the top but stayingthere year after year have shown just as much commitment, discipline, desire and mental toughness as raw talent and, of course, have also benefited from a fair amount of luck in avoiding serious injuries.
Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Ivan Lendl: all undeniably are role models for any aspiring young player looking to maximize his or her physical tools. But if there is one player in the history of the Open Era who got the most out of her God-given ability and beat opponents as much with her intangibles as with what was visible to the eye, that player would have to be Chris Marie Evert.
The stats and results are nothing less than astounding.
While it’s true that Graf and Margaret Court won more overall Grand Slam singles titles, Evert made at least the semifinals in 52 of the 56 Grand Slam tournaments in which she competed, including the first 34 majors she played!
Evert had a 48-0 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals until finally losing to Lori McNeil at the 1987 U.S. Open.
For most players, reaching the 4th round (the last 16) of a major is a great feat, perhaps the highlight of their career. Evert never lost a 4th round match at a Grand Slam event in her entire career.
And, of course, there’s no better proof of her remarkable consistency than the fact she finished in the top three in the WTA rankings for 17 consecutive seasons.
Now, Evert would be the first to admit that the depth of talent in women’s tennis in the 1970s and 80s was nowhere near what it is today and producing that type of consistency in the 21st century would be next to impossible. But naysayers need to keep in mind that Evert was using the same equipment as every other player of her era and she benefited from the same training techniques and knowledge about fitness as well.
She was also playing against professionals whose full-time job was tennis and who were competing for ever-growing prize money. Players had years to study and prepare game plans and plot ways to upset Evert, yet only the rare individual was ever able to do so at the game’s most important events.
It could be fairly said that Evert, along with long-time main rival Navratilova, put as much distance between herself and the second-tier elite and also-rans of tennis as any athlete in any sport and of any era.
Born in Dec. 21, 1954 in southern Florida, Chris’s tennis game was moulded by her father, Jimmy, a teaching pro and former successful tournament player who began grooving her strokes at the age of five.
Starting at such a young age, Evert developed a style of play and technique that would not only serve her well her entire career but also influence tens or even hundreds of thousands of young girls who took up the sport during the 1970s tennis boom.
Little Chrissy, for example, was unable to control the racquet face and generate power without using a two-handed backhand. Although it wasa shot that her traditionalist father never much cared for, it became the mainstay of her game for more than a quarter-century and the shot of choice for the vast majority of future professionals who were witnesses to all her accomplishments.
Speaking in reference to his daughter’s two-hander, a resigned Jimmy was later quoted as saying, “How can I argue with this success?”
It simply was not in Chris’ demeanor or personality to play like Billie Jean King, Margaret Court or Evonne Goolagong. Possessing a cool, calculating mind and not given to displays of emotion on court, the woman who would later be called the “Ice Maiden” simply gave lesser players zero chance of beating her because she refused to donate any points from the baseline or present targets for opponents by coming to the net.
True enough, she wasn’t ripping winners or generating much whip action or racquet head speed on her rather flat ground strokes, and because she didn’t use as much wrist as today’s players, she lacked the explosiveness and variety that we see among present-day top pros. She didn’t look to come forward much to make difficult but crowd-pleasing volleys. But there’s still more than a little something to be said for producing such mind-boggling consistency match after match and year after year, no matter how uninspired some may have been by Evert’s game.
Because of her style and temperament, Chris was not someone who needed to learn to harness her power and play within herself to win. She epitomized consistency and control on a tennis court and achieved immediate success from the time she first started competing in organized events.
Her first big splash against top-flight pro talent came in 1970, when, at the age of 15, she knocked off world No. 1 Margaret Court in a pair of tiebreakers at a small clay-court event in North Carolina. The match certainly signalled the arrival of a great talent, but the 7-6, 7-6 scoreline was the most impressive aspect of the victory.
A teenager with no experience winning all the big points in a tight contest against the reigning calendar-Grand Slam winner? This was uncommon mental toughness from a very uncommon, soon-to-be champion, a player respected tennis writer Peter Bodo would later describe as “a neurological miracle.”
Though it would still be a few years before Evert would come to dominate the sport, the legendary mental strength of the “Ice Maiden” was recognized from the outset.
Fully aware of her lack of a dominant shot, Evert made preparation, focus, concentration, patience and on-court problem solving her weapons. As Billie Jean King described it, Chrissie didn’t play sets or games but rather points. She was forever “in the now” and unaffected by the distractions that caused other players to lose control of matches.
The ultimate cerebral player, Evert couldn’t blow players off the court but she would quickly identify a weakness and exploit it to the maximum. If you had a weak backhand, she’d make you hit a thousand of them. If you were slow, she’d make you run from corner to corner. If you couldn’t volley she’d drop shot you and bring you to the net. If you couldn’t hit passing shots, she’d make her way forward.
For most of her early career, she was virtually peerless from the baseline and could only be defeated by the most talented and athletic net rushers like Goolagong and King.
And when the U.S. Open moved off of grass in 1975, there was little to stop Evert from totally dominating the sport. Between 1975 and 1978, Evert won six of the nine Slam events she entered and was basically only beatable on the slick, unpredictable grass courts of Wimbledon.
However, as inevitably happens in sports, dangerous rivals would emerge to make even a player with the mental fortitude of Evert question herself and doubt if she could rise to the challenge.
The first of these was Chris Evert clone Tracy Austin.
One of the legions of young women inspired by Evert, the confident Californian burst on the tennis scene at age 14 and a couple of years later, in 1979, had overtaken Evert in the rankings and was simply owning her on the court.
Between the U.S. Open of 1979 – in which Austin defeated Evert in the final – to the start of the 1980 U.S. Open, Tracy had defeated Chris five times in a row and appeared to have laid claim to the title of world’s best baseliner.
In what was the most frustrating stretch in Evert’s career to that point, Chrissy lost three matches in a row to Austin during a two-week span in January 1980, winning a total of just 10 games combined. Austin was beating Evert at her own game, outlasting her in long rallies again and again, and Chris was uttlerly confused about how to play her young opponent.
Letting her guard down some in a private moment, a flustered Evert remarked to sportswriter Steve Flink around that time that she could feel that Austin went on the court against her thinking she was going to win and that the experience was “very intimidating.”
At the 1980 U.S. Open semifinals, Austin jumped out to an early 4-0 lead on Evert and it appeared that the teenager was going to cruise to another easy win when, all of a sudden, the tables turned. Chris started driving the ball with more pace than usual and subtly but quickly took full control of the match. A stunned Austin simply had no plan B and was steamrolled 4-6, 6-1, 6-1.
Evert, who went on to beat Hana Mandlikova in the final, was queen of the baseline yet again. And, with Austin increasingly beset by injuries, it would be some seven years before – with the emergence of Steffi Graf – someone would come along to challenge her for that title.
But this was the early 1980s, not 2006, and serve and volley was alive and well and widely recognized as the optimal playing style, at least on fast courts. John McEnroe was proving it on the men’s side and, little by little, Navratilova was moving to take over the women’s sport.
Evert had thoroughly dominated the series with the chunky Czech in the early 70s, compiling a 20-4 record through early 1978. But gradually a shift was occurring. Over the next two years the two played virtually even and in 1981, despite one embarrassing 6-0, 6-0 triumph by Evert, Martina had the slight edge.
But then, starting in 1982, the rout was on.
A re-committed, ultra-fit, “eat-to-win” Navratilova took the lead in the rivalry for good by winning 17 of 19 matches from mid-1982 to mid-1985, including a stretch of 13 in a row.
Chris was as committed to the sport as ever during that period and still had the same unflappable court demeanor and impeccable concentration (Indeed, she was hardly losing to anyone else). But there was no denying that Martina had simply surpassed her and everyone else and drastic measures were needed to try to keep up.
Modeling herself after Navratilova, Evert put herself on a strict diet regime and physical training program. She also switched from the wood racquet of her youth and early pro career to a graphite frame to give her more power and zip on her passing shots.
Evert also began employing more net-rushing tactics and developing better feel on her volleys – something coach Dennis Ralston had insisted was necessary to have any chance against her stronger, more athletic opponent – and beefed up her second serve.
All with one player in mind.
The new-and-improved Evert, in short, did everything in her power to turn the tide of the rivalry back in her favor.
Was she successful? As far as humanly possible, yes. Following that 0-13 stretch, the series between these by-then all-time greats was a much more respectable 12-7 for Navratilova between 1985 and 1988.
And Evert-philes can rightly point out that during that final stretch Chrissy had a 4-1 record against Martina on clay, including two victories in French Open finals, and a 3-2 edge on outdoor hard. The other nine victories for Martina included five wins on indoor carpet and four on grass, the sport’s two fastest surfaces.
The overall head-to-head record stands at 43-37 in favor of Martina and the two both finished their careers with 18 Grand Slam titles. Martina, who played a few more years on Tour, edged Chris out in tournament victories with a staggering 167 to an equally astonishing 154.
But no matter how one may choose to crunch and evaluate the numbers, there’s simply no denying that the relatively petite Evert left a giant footprint on the sport of tennis. She played the game with class and impeccable sportsmanship for almost 20 years, never backed down to a challenge and never gave her opponent an inch.
And with her consistent, sustained excellence she inspired a whole generation of girls, boys, men and women to hit the courts, whack a two-fisted backhand and try to follow her lead.
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I liked the article on Evert. I thought she got most out of her talent when she played Martina Navratilova. However, she had problems playing other baseliners because of her fitness level against the likes of Kathy Jordan, Andrea Jaeger, and Tracy Austin wasn’t that good because she didn’t have to before they came along. In her time, there were so many net rushers like Martina, Wendy Turnbull, Evonne Goolagong, Rosie Casals, and Billie Jean King. This were target practice for Chris. Though she may have lost some, she preferred them than a player like herself.
She was comfortable with a net rushers because they did the work and she didn’t have to put out physically that much. However, against other aggresive baseliners, she had trouble because she was not in that good of shape until 1982. She was blessed with a great body because baseliners like a Wills, Connolly, and today’s players tend to get injured alot by playing the baseline. Luckily for Chris, she never had that kind of problem and was able to improve on it at the age of 27 which is amazing if you think about. I thought that was her true success of beating other baseliners with some consistency. However when Graf and Seles came along, she was smart to quit.
It is one thing to play Martina with maximum effort at all times but getting there is another thing. That is where she improved.
Davan S. Mani