When you grow up in a state where you can wear a T-shirt from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall into bed, every day of the year, you're almost obligated to play outside all the time. And when I was a kid in Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s, I spent countless blissful afternoons splashing around in my friend's pool and having barbecues afterward. Of course, that changed when my father, Jimmy, started taking me with him to Holiday Park, where he was the director of the municipal tennis complex. I remember being five years old and listening to my dad drone on about turning sideways and following through and feeling so much resentment about how my summer routine had been ruined by tennis.
Recently my dad explained his reason for dragging me to Holiday Park with a shopping cart full of balls day after day: He wanted to keep me under his wing and out of trouble. Obviously he accomplished something more than that—he made me into a world-class tennis player. But I didn't realize at the time how lucky I was. Back then, tennis was one of the few competitive sports that females played, and by the '70s Holiday Park (whose tennis complex was later renamed after my dad) was a hotbed for junior talent, with players like Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon. Yet for all the future stars who were there, and the long hours of practice we put in, youth tennis in those days was as much play as it was sport. Today, at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, which I run with my brother John, the kids are always training at the highest level because the competitiveness of the junior circuit requires them to. But when I was starting out, my hitting partner and I would stroll up to the net between points to compare nail-polish shades. Between practices we would gather up the other kids and play football on a field across the street.
When I started competing on a national level, I found that access to swimming pools and green spaces wasn't the only advantage of growing up in Florida. I once traveled to Chattanooga for a junior tournament and played against girls who fainted from heat exhaustion in the middle of a set. We players from Florida were used to running around all year on those dusty clay courts in stifling heat and humidity, and we'd crush opponents from other states.
I know Florida is famous for its rabid football fans, but for every tale you hear about heckling at the Orange Bowl in Miami or the Swamp in Gainesville, I can tell you a story that shows a different side of Floridians. In my experience the fans have been as warm and pleasant as the weather. I'll never forget coming home from my first U.S. Open, in 1971, when I was 16 and hearing the pilot of the airplane request that "the Evert party" remain in our seats until everyone else had disembarked. I knew something was up but was astounded to see my St. Thomas Aquinas High classmates waiting with signs and horns to greet me at the gate. Until that point I'd always been the girl standing along the wall at the dance, and it was strange and wonderful to have people coming out to honor me. From that moment on I knew that, win or lose, I would have a supportive fan base back in the Sunshine State.
As my tennis started taking me all over the world, I purchased houses in other places. But I will always call Florida home. Now I live with my husband, Andy Mill, and three sons in Boca Raton, and just as when I was a young girl, we spend much of our time having fun outside. Andy often takes the boys to the Keys to fish for snapper and tarpon, and he has introduced them to some of the extreme sports he loves. Their latest passion is dirt biking, and we spend two nights a week as well as a good part of most weekends at the motocross course in Dania. Just the other evening another parent and I were watching our sons race and noting how lucky we were to know what our kids were up to. All these years after that first trip to Holiday Park, I understood my dad completely. As I get older, my dad gets smarter.