About a year ago a tennis magazine asked the playing pros to rate the best strokes in the game. The consensus gave the women's forehand to Marita Redondo, the backhand to Evonne Goolagong, the volleys to Martina Navratilova on the forehand and Goolagong on the backhand, the serve to Virginia Wade and the overhead to Rosie Casals.
And what of Chris Evert, the best woman player in the world for three years, the winner of two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens, two French Opens, two Italian Opens, three Virginia Slims championships and 101 consecutive matches on clay? What about the depth and pace and accuracy of her ground strokes? What about that impenetrable backhand that has young girls from Long Island to Long Beach hitting out with both fists?
The answer is that there are players who are stronger than Evert and more naturally talented athletes than Evert and more explosive volleyers than Evert. What Evert has more of, what makes her a champion who each year moves farther and farther beyond the reach of mortal tennis players, is grit. Chris Evert has true grit. Character. Mental tenacity. She is a clear thinker in a thoughtful game. And she never gives up.
"She won't carry anyone and she'll never tank a match," says TV's Bud Collins. "She's the ultimate professional."
"She concentrates to the last point," says Margaret Court. "It makes her a champion. Even when she is losing she concentrates and doesn't give up."
In the San Francisco Slims tournament last March, Evert met Redondo, the California 20-year-old with the big forehand, in the semifinal. Marita was high, having beaten No. 3-ranked Virginia Wade the night before, and was playing well. Evert was tired from three tournaments in a row and was playing lethargically. The crowd was with Redondo; it uproariously cheered Evert's every mistake. The players split the first two sets, both decided by tie-breakers, and suddenly Evert was down 5-1 in the third set.
Now, the Redondo match was not one of the most significant of Evert's career, or even of the year, and the circumstances—a fired-up opponent, a bloodthirsty crowd, a four-game deficit in the deciding set—would have led even the greatest of players to thoughts of room service and the late show. But Evert is an artisan and tennis is her craft, and will is the most precious of her tools. She drew herself together, won five of the next six games, won the tie-breaker and won the match—and the killer crowd gave her a thundering ovation. It was now 11 p.m. At midnight she played doubles, and at noon the next day, in a final match scheduled early for TV, she beat Goolagong 7-5, 7-6.
On her record Evert has been the best woman tennis player in the world since 1974, the year she won her first Wimbledon singles title. In the last three years she has won 44 of the 62 tournaments she has entered, and her career record against the foremost players in the game reads as follows: Evert 18-Goolagong 11; Evert 8-King 7; Evert 7-Court 4; Evert 20-Wade 4; Evert 19-Casals 1; Evert 15-Navratilova 3. Only Nancy Richey is even at 5-5.
But acceptance of Evert has been gradual and always a bit grudging, rather like what Jack Nicklaus went through before the sheer weight of his accomplishments broke through the resistance of public and press. Just as Nicklaus' galleries would gasp in wonder at the power of his drives and then root for Arnold Palmer to whip him, so tennis crowds, while properly awed by the tenacity of Evert's baseline game, love to see her beaten. It is as though they imagine themselves across the net, rendered impotent by her devastating consistency.
Evert's peers have dwelt at such length on her powers of concentration and so little on her strokes that one could be forgiven for having this impression: while everyone else is playing tennis, Evert takes an unfair advantage by resorting to another game, some sort of mystical hybrid made up of one part backhand to nine parts concentration.