But 1976 has done it; the last of the skeptics has been won over. Natasha Chmyreva, the 18-year-old Russian who gave Evert a scare in the Slims tournament in Houston early in the year, said, "Chris is so great because when she misses she looks around as if something is wrong." Said Virginia Wade, after losing 6-1, 6-2 in Washington last January, "I don't want to play Chris again for a long time. When you play Chris, you tend to disappear." Navratilova, after Evert and Goolagong the best on clay: "When girls play her on clay they think of how many games they might win, not about winning the match."
"I think she'll be the greatest woman player ever to hit the ball," said Bud Collins. "If she gets her volley down, they can close the tournaments."
With Margaret Court and Billie Jean King more or less retired, only Evonne Goolagong remained this year to challenge Evert's hegemony. Ever since 1972 when the two—Evert, 17, and Goolagong, 20—met for the first time in a semifinal at Wimbledon, their matches have been among the best attractions in tennis. Goolagong was "the utterly carefree strokemaker" and Evert "the best-schooled competitor America has produced since Maureen Connolly," and Goolagong won in three memorable sets, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Through 1974 Goolagong won their important matches, but in 1975 the tide turned. When they met in the final at Forest Hills, the No. 1 ranking was at stake and this time Evert won. But because Forest Hills had that year converted from grass to Har-Tru, a claylike surface, many Goolagong supporters, and a lot of other people, saw the victory as only another inevitable Evert win on clay.
As 1976 began, Evert was on a 35-match winning streak dating back to Wimbledon in July, and she had won her last five matches with Goolagong. Their lifetime competition stood at 13-9 in Chris' favor. Nevertheless the talk was that this might be Goolagong's year—that she was playing the best tennis of her life, that her marriage had worked wonders for her confidence and that those notorious and unpredictable lapses that had kept her from reaching her potential were a thing of the past.
Eleven tournaments preceded the first major event, the Virginia Slims championship in Los Angeles in April, and of those 11, Goolagong won five and Evert five. On paper the rivalry looked even, but in fact it was not. Evert had beaten Goolagong three of the four times they had met—but she had also lost a first-round match in Boston the last week of March to Dianne Fromholtz of Australia, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. It was her first loss in the first round since 1971, when she was 16. The next week in Philadelphia Evert lost again, this time to Goolagong in the final, 6-3, 7-6.
"Losing in the first round in Boston was a terrible feeling and a great feeling," says Evert. "It meant I had the whole week to myself. I was disappointed, but I was relieved, too. Losses are always a relief. They take a great burden off me, make me feel more normal. If I win several tournaments in a row I get so confident I'm in a cloud. If I lose, I go back to the dressing room and I'm no better or worse than anyone else. A loss gets me eager again."
Two losses in a row, however, left her somewhat shaken. In the weeklong break between Philadelphia and the Slims championship she went home to Fort Lauderdale and worked with her father, mainly on her forehand. Her confidence had returned by the time she reached Los Angeles, but it was not enough to get her past Goolagong, who was playing at her peak. Evonne won 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.
" L.A. was so close," says Chris. "It could have gone either way. I was confident enough to beat her, but she played better than I did. She had me on the ropes. I made Wimbledon my goal after that. It was the first time in my whole life I had set a specific goal for myself. I had never said I was going to win this tournament.
"I've had a good time this year, for the first time. I'm a lot happier than I used to be. But maybe my tennis went down a notch or two for a while."