Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Half Hour With Chris Evert

If you're in TigerBlog's age range, then it's very, very likely that your first favorite female athlete was Chris Evert.

Back then, in the time slightly before Title IX or in the early stages of the new law that was enacted in 1972, the women's athletic landscape looked much different. There was no WNBA. There was no Women's World Cup. Brandy Chastain's jersey-ripping was still two decades away.

Most of the top female athletes when TB was a kid fell into one of two categories. 

First, there were the Olympians, especially in two sports - gymnastics and figure skating. There were also somewhat well known names in track and field and swimming as well.

The other athletes were, to a lesser degree, golfers, and then the most famous of them all, tennis players.

They were all, as you might have noticed, individual sports. There weren't a lot of great options for team sports back then for girls and women.

Chris Evert reached the semifinals of the 1971 U.S. Open before falling to Billie Jean King at the age of 16. From that point through her retirement 16 years later, she was as consistently dominant a tennis player who has ever competed. 

In fact she'd win at least one Grand Slam title in 13 straight years (a record), and she'd reach at least the semifinals of 34 straight Grand Slam tournaments from that 1971 U.S. Open through the 1983 French Open. That's an incredible amount of consistency.

Among her other accomplishments, Evert is responsible for popularizing the two-handed backhand, not to mention creating the term "tennis bracelet." Seriously, you can look that one up, but it's true.

Evert was extraordinarily popular, largely due to her success and her "All-American girl-next-door" persona. Who used those words? Her biggest rival, Martina Navratilova.

The two completely dominated women's tennis through the 1980s. They had an intense rivalry, often meeting in the final of events, and one of them won 15 straight Grand Slam finals in the first half of the 1980s. There was a great "30 For 30" about the two of them, and Navratilova said this during the documentary: "Nobody ever rooted for me. You were the All-American girl next door, and I was a lesbian from Czechoslovakia." 

TB, by the way, admired Navratilova very much, especially after he met her while covering the 1985 U.S. Open.

Anyway, TB was unaware of any connection between Evert and Princeton, which is why it was very surprising when last week he received an email saying that Evert would be the next guest on the "One On One With Mitch Henderson" series.

Henderson, the head men's basketball coach at Princeton, has been doing interviews with various people during the last year or so. Among those who have been part of the series have been New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and WNBA player Sue Bird.

Evert spoke with Henderson for 30 minutes earlier this week. She was exactly as you would expect - humble, appreciative, honest, direct and engaging.

She mentioned how she had never gone to college but how three of her four siblings had been the No. 1 player on their own college teams. She talked about her work with the United States Tennis Foundation, which runs more than 250 programs for 160,000 kids each year. 

The foundation is particularly interested in working with kids in underserved areas, where access to lessons and rackets is not always great. She also spoke about how these programs are about tutoring and mentoring and college prep.

She got her start in tennis from her father, who was a teaching pro. She told the story about when she asked him about why he'd started them in tennis when they were so young and how instead of saying "something romantic" he instead talked about how it kept them off the streets. 

"As I get older," she said, "my father gets smarter."

She talked about the evolution of women's athletics, how girls her age were taught to be seen and not heard, to be polite, to want to be models or ballerinas. She always wanted to be, in her word, "fierce."

She spoke with women's squash senior Grace Doyle, who handed in her thesis on Title IX and women's sports earlier that day. She also spoke with Ford Family Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux Samaan, who talked about having watched Evert when she played and what an inspirational athlete she had been.

Evert spoke glowingly about the role that King had played in building the women's tour and getting women's tennis to be accepted the way it was, even beyond her match with Bobby Riggs. Interestingly, she said that King had sacrificed the chance to win more titles for herself with all of the time it took to find sponsorships and media deals and everything else that popularized the tour.

In all, it was a great 30 minutes, which is not surprising. 

There have been few athletes who have ever come along who have made an impact on the sporting world the way Chris Evert has.

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