CHRIS EVERT, JOCK SUPREME: A THROWBACK TO HER UNDERRATED ATHLETICISM
As fans of such athletes as hockey star Wayne Gretzky or basketball legend Larry Bird will ask, why rush when you can just be there? Rarely did the 18-time major champion arrive late to the ball.
By Joel Drucker
May 07, 2020
At one level, it was simply a routine opening match. At the Foro Italico in Rome, Chris Evert had just beaten Adriana Villagran, 6-0, 6-1, in the first round of the 1980 Italian Open.
But there was a deeper plot line. This was Evert’s first WTA match since January. At the time, she was just on the road back from the first major hiccup of her career, a crossroads moment that had commenced in Rome 12 months earlier.
In the 1979 Italian Open semis, Evert was beaten by Tracy Austin, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (4). The loss snapped Evert’s astonishing 125-match clay-court winning streak. Though she’d go on to win the title at Roland Garros in June, the balance of Evert’s 1979 was frustrating. Summer had begun with a defeat by Martina Navratilova in the finals of Wimbledon. It finished with something far more disturbing, Evert again losing to Austin, this time in the finals of the US Open.
It was one thing for Evert to have been beaten on grass by a skilled attacker like Navratilova. But Austin represented a much more implicating problem. She was emerging as a better version of Evert: a focused, consistent, pit bull of a baseliner. After losing four more times to Austin in late 1979 and early 1980, Evert opted to take a sabbatical. There were even rumblings that she might retire.
The world had long noted Evert’s mental resolve. She too would often cite her mind as her greatest asset. Unquestionably, throughout that pivotal 1980, Evert’s cognitive acumen helped her go on to win Rome and Roland Garros, beat Navratilova in the semis of Wimbledon, defeat Austin in the semis of the US Open and then go on to regain the title there, too. A year that had begun with distress finished on a familiar note, Evert once again No. 1.
But impressive as Evert’s brainpower was, tennis is hardly sedentary. The American was a tremendous athlete. Evert herself always downplays her physical prowess, which perhaps is logical given that her greatest rival was Navratilova, one of the most skilled athletes in the history of all of sports. Were your neighbor Shakespeare, you too might be reluctant to consider yourself a great prose stylist.
1980 US Open semifinal: Chris Evert vs. Tracy Austin
An obvious way to define athleticism is to praise the person who can show up at a company picnic and, likely without any prior training, demonstrate plausible proficiency at a variety of sports. In America, that usually reveals itself by the ability to hit a baseball, throw a football, shoot a basketball, run quickly or lift a heavy object. Height can also confer alleged athleticism; say, a man standing at least six feet tall.
Yet why is our definition of athleticism confined to such raw, instantly apparent physical attributes? Is athleticism strictly innate, like an eye color? Perhaps, instead of purported ability, we might ponder athleticism as the manifestation of skill, of certain talents honed, demonstrated and, most telling of all, sustained.
While Evert’s athletic aptitude was less visible than our theoretical picnic attendee, it showed up again and again and again—emphasis given her staggering longevity throughout rallies and entire career.
First, there was her extraordinary balance, relentlessly revealed through an ability to attain, hold and maintain proper posture on a par with an Olympic gymnast. It’s hard to picture Evert flailing at the ball from an awkward, poor position.
Wedded to this was excellent movement. Was Evert a scrambler in the manner of Gael Monfils? No. She had no need for haste. As fans of such athletes as hockey star Wayne Gretzky or basketball legend Larry Bird will also ask, why rush when you can just be there? Rarely did Evert arrive late to the ball.
“She was quick enough for the task at hand,” Billie Jean King once said about her.