Chris Evert is retiring, a decision that will leave an aching hollow in women's tennis and, indeed, in all of sport. So come, reflect with me for a moment on our wonderful luck—mine in particular—at having had her in the game, indomitable, for the last 18 years.
I actually thought she should have quit after playing so well at Wimbledon this summer. It would have been a good way to go—Centre Court, the semifinals—but Chris didn't make it this far by quitting whenever she felt like it. She has to declare it over. So she's playing one last U.S. Open.
I vividly remember the first time I set eyes on Chris, at the Tennis Club in Fort Lauderdale, in 1973. She was playing backgammon with her younger sister Jeannie. I walked past and Chris smiled at me. I thought, She's so nice. I was right. Two years later we became good friends as well as doubles partners. At the French Open in 1975 we had a ball together, hitting the great restaurants, having picnics in our hotel rooms. She beat me in the finals, and we won the doubles together. I got my first Wimbledon title when we won the doubles therein 1976.
Then, as I became more competitive with her in singles, Chris pulled back a little. One major question for any athlete is how close you should get to those you have sworn to beat. Chris has always found an effective middle ground. I've wandered all over. In 1982, when she had the top ranking and I wanted it, I didn't care how badly I beat her. It was killer instinct on and off the court. Last year, I went too far in the other direction.
In December 1987, we played a lot of exhibitions in which you make sure, in a friendly way, that the matches stay close. But when we met in the semifinals of the 1988 Australian Open a month later, Chris had her game face on and was all business. I thought, Whoa, wait a minute! Where is my friend? This woman across the net is trying to kill me! I had let myself get too close. I paid the price, losing to her in straight sets. She had handled it just right. I was the one with the problem.
Through the years, we always talked, always kept the air clear when reporters tried to pit us against each other through quotes—or misquotes—in the papers. We would find out exactly what was said, so things never got out of control. And we've been fair to each other. Even when she beat me, and I'd be sitting in the locker room, depressed, she'd come over to cheer me up.
So her legacy, beyond the two-handed backhand, is dignity. Chris always handled herself with class on the court. She did the most with what she had. She is of slight build and was never taught much of the serve-and-volley game when she was young. However, if there were a way to win, she would find it.
Chris usually feels more than she tells. She is always the diplomat. She says what she should say, not what she wants to say. Quite the opposite is true of me. She is a lesson in gliding past distractions and keeping your mind on the task at hand.
I have learned some of that concentration from her, and that's part of why we both have—how can I put it?—weathered well. Not only did we bring out the best in each other, but we brought it out for years longer than if either of us had been alone at the top. If she had never gotten there, I might have long since left the sport.
When I really think about it, my sense of good fortune is powerful. We had so much of each other. Chris played 10 years longer than she had planned to at the beginning, and five more than I thought she would play. It just would have seemed wrong for her not to play one last U.S. Open, the tournament in which she burst on the scene in 1971. I know she'll enjoy being free for a change.