No other tennis player during the women's pro era has captured the hearts of Americans the way Chris Evert Lloyd has. Tracy Austin is admired, but she doesn't inspire adulation. Billie Jean King is respected but not loved. But fans' feelings for Evert go deeper; they want her to win every time she steps onto the court.
But she has reached a critical point in her fabulous career. There are more than a few young and ambitious teen-aged challengers, and the question is whether Evert, who will be 28 in December, is driven enough to continue the sacrifices necessary to be No. 1.
Evert is not a natural athlete. She does not have the grace of Hana Mandlikova or the fluidity of Martina Navratilova. When she hits a drop shot, it looks like she just learned it last week.
She heard me say on the "Today" show, "I don't know whether Chris Evert Lloyd is hungry enough." Two days later she emphatically told me, "Not only am I hungry, I'm starving!"
Navratilova's success is certainly one of the major reasons; she has won 67 of 68 matches this year. Evert has lost four times, which is an off year for her.
If she doesn't win this year's U.S. Open, it will be her first year since turning pro on her 18th birthday that she did not win a major title.
Furthermore, Navratilova has been quoted as saying, "I'd like to be remembered as the best female player of all time." Evert read that and started a slow burn.
Evert is doubting herself, which is something all great players do at times. John McEnroe now wonders if he will ever regain his magic touch. But McEnroe is only 23, so his situation does not really compare with that of Evert, who would do well to chart the career curve of her old nemesis, King.
In 1975, after winning her sixth Wimbledon singles title, King announced that she would not enter singles competition in the tournament again. But seven years later, she was still around, beating Tracy Austin in the quarterfinals and losing to Evert in the semis in three sets.
The big difference between Evert and King is that King's life is tennis but, Evert has a life beyond tennis, which she sees as an exciting career to be enjoyed and then dropped. King may be playing when she's 50.
"I certainly do not intend to be playing the women's tour when I'm 38," Evert says. "John and I want to have children and I want to be able to do the things that other women do."
If so, she has two choices: quit cold turkey at a certain time, or truly face up to the challenges. There is no in between. For her, top-flight performances require hours of practice.
I faced a similar decision in 1977. I had heel surgery and during my rehabilitation, I was advised by many to retire and "move on." But I felt deep inside that I had not finished yet. I wanted to play another 18 months.
The comeback phase is fraught with danger. If an athlete does well, the writers will say he retired too soon. If things don't work out, the athlete risks being forever labeled as one who hung on too long. Chris Evert will never hang on too long.
Her husband, John Lloyd, who struggles on the men's tour, is blunt when talking about her future.
"Chris bloody well wants to go out as No. 1," he says. "She'll never hang around like Billie Jean. And she refuses to get caught up in all the glamor that goes with being No. 1. She's got her feet on the ground. If she tried to live up to what some people want to imagine, she'd had to change her personality. She knows her days are numbered. And nobody will have to drag her off the center court."
Her task now is to face up to the formidable goal she has set for herself. She knows she has the best ground strokes in women's tennis. Keeping them that way requires the same number of practice hours now as 11 years ago.
"I want this (Open) title more than I have ever wanted anything since I turned pro," she said.
But her husband put it more in focus: "When she retires, she'll only do it once. And though I suppose she'll have a tear in the old eye, she'll have a laugh in her heart."