Of Chris Evert, the sweet little rich girl, a critic once said that the only time Jimmy Connors showed any class was when he dumped her in favor of a movie actress. This was a fairly grotesque thing to say, yet it was almost complimentary compared to the abuse the reigning woman tennis player has been subjected to on her way to stardom and an avowed destination of marriage, family and a white picket fence all around.
For someone who grew up down the block from practically all of us—if Chris Evert is not the essential girl next door, you must have lived by a vacant lot—the divine Ms. E. has been vilified throughout much of the America she so innocently has come to represent. Why this is so is not entirely clear.
As a spokeswoman for trendy female consciousness, stirring things up while she was rejuvenating distaff jockdom practically by herself, Billie Jean King was often reviled. But B.J. luxuriated in controversy. She was rough, tough, full of brambles—both a pain in the neck and a remarkable woman.
On the opposite side of the court, there is hardly anything remarkable about Chris Evert, aside from her exquisite tennis. She is soft, simple, periwinkles and heather; a composite of Sandra Dee, the Carpenters and, yes, apple pie. As she goes about the tasks of growing up, making a living and trying to deal with the perils of romance all at the same time in front of 60 million onlookers, she appears to be both a throwback to pinafore days and a bedenimed example of contemporary womanhood.
Only the cloying Rod McKuen could have invented Chris Evert. "Listen to the Clay" perhaps. Or "Fuzzy Was the Yellow Ball." Or something. And that's the rub, isn't it? She is just too nice, too sweet, too, well, perfect. There. Chris Evert is too perfect. It is as Kristien Kemmer Shaw, her best friend and fellow tournament player, once told Evert after getting to know her mother. "Chris, I didn't like your mom at first," Kristien said. "I didn't believe anybody could be that nice and still be real."
One way or another, it must be understood that Chris Evert, a plainspoken girl from a simple tract home on a quiet street in Fort Lauderdale—this same lass who dates a President's son, charms talk shows, wears all those pastels and earns all that money—had spectacular timing. That she burst from a puff of smoke just as the game of tennis was shot from a cannon into the center ring may have been fortuitous. But whether she was more lucky than good doesn't matter anymore. She hits the doublehander, wins the tournament and doesn't smile much. If that is what arouses envy, even hatred, and turns everybody off, so be it. She is just Chris Evert and everybody else is not.
With all her victories and celebrity, her clothes and multiple images, she has always been just Chris to the tour-mates on the Virginia Slims circuit. Just Chris to Jeanie Brinkman, the promotions director for the Slims. Just Chris to Valerie Ziegenfuss, a borderline player shuttling between the big time and the satellite "futures" tour. Just Chris to Johnny Carson. Just Chris to Jack Ford.
"She's at her best with the No. 1 crowd," says Ziegenfuss of Evert. "To be with the elite, the famous, the show biz people, that's a challenge to Chris. She funnels her energies into that. And she carries it off beautifully."
But does the coach turn into a pumpkin? Not long after her short, roller-coaster fling with young Ford, Evert won a tournament at Sarasota for which Jack Drury did the publicity and subsequently received a bouquet of flowers with a card signed "Keep it up. Jack." She went into a dither trying to figure who the sender was until Jeanie Brinkman finally convinced her the gift was not from Jack, the publicist, but from Jack, the White House kid.
Similarly revealing of Evert's occasional fairy-tale-like existence was her reaction during a private dinner at Manhattan's cushy "21" club, which she attended with another Ford, Eileen of the modeling agency. Everything was sophisticated and just so until Chris started whispering to Kristien Shaw that don't look now, but over there is the star of a noontime TV soap opera.