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.”