Tennis great Chris Evert finds new life on the court

BOCA RATON, Fla. — It’s a sun-drenched South Florida morning, with a breeze that rustles the palm trees and toys with the tennis balls that fly back and forth, back and forth across the net.

“I like the power, Carly!” the coach sings outs, accentuating a positive after the student blasts a forehand past the baseline. “But what do you need to do? Spin! Because of the wind!”

(Andrew Innerarity/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Tennis great Chris Evert and Madison Appel, a 14 year-old from Long Island, N.Y., play a doubles drill at Evert’s academy in Boca Raton, Fla. With her three children nearing adulthood, Evert has returned her focus to the game.

Then, after a better rally: “That’s a nice shot! Very solid!

And when the youngster plows a ball into the net: “You stopped moving your feet! You’re not intense! C’mon! Be intense!”

The baseball cap obscures the face, but there’s no mistaking the flawless form of the coach dispensing the tips as she sprints around the court against players 40 years younger — particularly when she drives that pinpoint, two-fisted backhand down the line.

It’s Chris Evert, who can be found most weekday mornings on the courts of Boca Raton’s Evert Academy, which she owns with her brother John, hitting with 14-, 15- and 16-year-old girls who dream of achieving what she did.

Twenty-two years after she played her last professional match and retreated from the spotlight to start a family, Evert, the fiercest competitor in tennis history, is again embracing the sport she once dominated. Her girlish charm has been tempered by the pain of a third divorce. And the three sons she considers her proudest achievement — Alex, 20; Nicky, 17; and Colton, 15 — will soon leave home to start their own lives.

So, like many women whose children no longer need them quite so much, Evert, 57, has returned to work — as a coach, mentor and commentator. This month, she expands her role as an analyst for ESPN at the Australian Open.

In a recent interview at the Evert Academy and her home nearby, Evert displayed no false modesty about her athletic achievements, much of which she attributes to being born with a rare ability to concentrate and compartmentalize. She also made no effort to gloss over the fact that her personal life remains a work in progress.

From the moment she burst onto the international stage by reaching the semifinals of the 1971 U.S. Open at 16, Evert hardly put a foot wrong on the tennis court. She won 125 consecutive matches on clay and at least one major title for 13 years in a row — records that stand today. She was as impeccable in her deportment as she was with strokes, ladylike in pursuit of victory, never one to pitch tantrums or berate officials.

A woman of average height and build, Evert possessed no particular world-beating shot. But she won 18 Grand Slam titles and compiled an unrivaled .899 winning percentage (1,309-146) through a ferocious hunger to be No. 1 and an unflinching mental resolve.

As John McEnroe once put it, “She was an assassin that dressed just nice and said the right things and meanwhile cut you to shreds.”

Off the court, she had a fairytale romance with fellow American champion Jimmy Connors, to whom she was briefly engaged when she was just 19. Five years later, she married the British player John Lloyd and, for a time, became known professionally as Chris Evert Lloyd; the couple divorced in 1987.

When she retired in 1989 at 34 to start a family with her second husband, Olympic skiing champion Andy Mill, Evert did so with the same grace she demonstrated on the court. One of five children reared in a devout Catholic household, she embraced motherhood, the role she had longed to play.

But in the aftermath of her disastrous third marriage to golfer Greg Norman, which lasted just 15 months, Evert found herself, in her early 50s, far off the script of perfection that framed her public personae. Both she and Norman had left longtime spouses after falling for one another, and tabloids from Australia to the United States chronicled the cost and speculated about the cause.

According to Evert, the marriage was doomed by her anguish over all she had destroyed in the process. “Once I got married to Greg, the reality hit me — the guilt, and the sadness I had caused my family,” she said. “And the guilt came into my marriage with him, so it never had a chance.”

Suddenly single again, she pulled away from the world around her, then took a hard look at herself. “You pay a price for everything in life,” she said. “And I had lived a charmed life up until then. I needed to learn a couple life lessons.”

Today, Evert is as youthful as the name she still answers to, “Chrissie,” and trim as she was at the peak of career. She laughs easily, loves a good off-color joke and has an attentive, compassionate ear and inquisitive mind. And as she did as a child, she still loves pretty dresses, nice jewelry and bright colors. Even her smartphone cover is adorned with flowers.

Her Spanish-style home, redecorated since her divorce, reflects her tastes, with floral upholstery, scented candles and cherished mementos, including the wooden racket she used in winning her first Wimbledon, its strings popped and frayed.

But Evert’s home is hardly a shrine to her Hall of Fame career. It belongs equally to the family’s three dogs and her three sons, whose photos adorn every room, chronicling childhoods spent jumping on trampolines, flying off bike ramps, reeling in game fish and snuggling with mom. Their artwork gets the same, framed treatment as Andy Warhol’s portrait of their mother.

Apart from the indoor skate park the boys constructed in the garage out back, spray-painting the walls like an urban jungle, everything about Evert’s home is pretty inside and out, opening onto a manicured lawn dotted with palm trees and cascading bougainvillea, with a pool, tennis court, gym and guest house.

It is a comfortable setting for talking about difficult lessons.

Chief among Evert’s of late: The ingredients that make a tennis champion— the selfishness and self-absorption — don’t necessarily translate to healthy relationships.

“Relationships are give-and-take, and when you’re a tennis player, you’re certainly not giving,” Evert said. “You have to be self-absorbed. It has to be about you.”

And the sense of entitlement that creates, she has learned, can be toxic. It was that entitlement, Evert’s suspects, that led her to fall for Norman, “a dashing man who swept me off my feet,” at a vulnerable time, having drifted apart from Mill, her husband of 18 years, without considering the consequences.

And she learned too late that it’s better to talk about problems in a marriage than to suppress them. “If you feel you’re starting to grow apart, take care of it then,” Evert said. “Don’t wait. Be pro-active and communicate — whether you have to go to therapy or talk about things yourselves — because you can still get it back in the early stages, but you can’t in the latter stages.”

Even after the soul-searching that followed her divorce from Norman, it was a process for Evert to let go of the sadness that consumed her and start living again.

She found that new life where the old one had been — on a tennis court. The Evert Academy has grown considerably since she and her brother John launched it in 1996, from focusing on local youngsters to providing year-round training for juniors from around the world who live in its dorms, attend school on-site and hone their strokes under its staff, with college scholarships and pro careers their ultimate goal.

Evert’s relationship with the academy has grown, too, from arm’s-length investor to regular fixture and mentor to many of the girls whom she regards as daughters. Their needs have provided the outlet Evert needed these last five years.

“It was like [the novel] Eat, Pray, Love,” she said of coaching junior players. “I needed to find something I could marvel at!”

She loves talking to youngsters about pressure — how it made her arms suddenly feel heavy and her legs leaden during crucial points in Grand Slams — and how she mastered it. She talks to them about competing on every point — not celebrating great shots so much that you botch the next. And she talks to them about defeat, even though she experienced so little, and the imperative of learning from each setback.

“You can’t give up!” she tells them. “If you give up, you’re like everybody else.”

That’s precisely the blunt talk ESPN executives wanted when they approached Evert about joining their broadcast team last year. She was reluctant after a less than memorable TV stint more than a decade ago, when she shied away from critiquing players she’d competed against and hesitated to voice her opinion.

But her brother John, a former college player, coach and agent with IMG, urged her to try it again. It was time, he told her, to re-establish her brand in the tennis world.

It was also time, Evert realized, to shake her sadness and get to work. So she agreed to a trial run at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The result exceeded expectations.

“She gave us more gravitas,” said ESPN’s Pam Shriver, a friend and contemporary on the pro tour. “She had one of the greatest streaks of all time. She won a major every year for 13 years. She had one of the great rivalries in the history of sports. She played against her sister at the professional level; she was coached by her father. There’s so much she can call upon in her experience to help us describe the mind-set of the players.”

And Evert delighted in being part of a team — finally having colleagues in tennis instead of rivals — from ESPN’s Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert to longtime “gal pals” Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez and Hannah Storm, who, along with Evert, have 11 children among them.

Evert’s ease and authority in the booth are palpable, with her incisive commentary, inside anecdotes and playful humor tumbling forth.

Says John Evert: “She is expressing who she really was and who she really is. I don’t think she felt like she could [as a player]; I think she probably felt a little bottled up when she was playing. She felt like she had to project this image and then protect this image.”

Today, Evert is grateful for the spoils of her career. And as a divorced woman and soon-to-be empty-nester, she’s proud of the career she’s forging in business, with the academy now profitable, a well-received broadcasting career and new endorsement deals brewing, thanks to an energetic new agent.

She is no less proud of her personal journey, eager to share her life lessons if they can help others.

“I think that what I have gone through the last couple of years, a normal person would have gone through a long time ago,” Evert said. “When you’re a famous, successful person at 16 years old, the rules change for you. Everybody is doing things for you to make life easier so you can go out and play. And I think you miss out on lot of growing up and a lot of reality checks.”

She pauses and smiles.

“I’m a late bloomer.”

 
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