Chris Evert is a bit at home at Roland Garros. The American holds the number of victories in the ladies (7). The one who revolutionized the sacrosanct serve-volley with her baseline game chained 125 straight victories on clay between 1973 and 1979. The “lady with nerves of steel” – “A chic and polite assassin who cut you to pieces”, said John McEnroe – has a career winning percentage of 90%, again a record, men and women alike.
For years, the whole world was passionate about her rivalry with Martina Navratilova: between 1973 and 1988, they faced each other eighty times (43 victories for Navratilova), and each have eighteen Grand Slam victories. Retired since 1989, the tennis legend, 65, heads the academy that bears his name in Boca Raton, Florida. On the occasion of the Parisian Grand Slam, which she comments for Eurosport from the United States, pandemic obliges, The world spoke with her.
You have triumphed seven times at Roland Garros: why did your game adapt so well to clay?
I grew up on clay and when you do your scales on a certain type of surface very young, it becomes second nature. It shapes your style of play and you end up being good at it. I was not a powerful player, I was neither tall nor very muscular, I measured 1.68 m for 54 kg …
I didn’t have the weapons to take my opponent off the court, I had to develop other strengths, such as patience, consistency and concentration. I was very patient, I waited for my opponent to make a mistake. And then my cushioning was effective, I varied a lot on gravel, I had good footwork and I knew how to slide.
With hindsight, which of your victories remains the most significant?
The one in 1985 [6-3, 6-7, 7-5 face à Martina Navratilova]. Before facing Martina, I had lost thirteen games in a row against her, each time she had largely dominated me, I did not really believe in my chances of being able to beat her. But when I faced her in the final that year, on my favorite surface, I kept telling myself: “Above all, stay in touch with her, if the score is close, it might make her nervous because the pressure is on her shoulders, not on you.” “ That’s what I did.
It was a very long match, in three sets, with incessant reversals of situations. No one was betting on me, so when I beat her it was exhilarating to put it mildly… Especially since I was at the end of my career, the joy was greater than for any of my Grand victories. Slam.
Your records are still holding and without doubt you could have increased them if at the time, you, like your contemporaries, had given the same priority to the Grand Slams as the players today… You missed Roland-Garros between 1976 and 1978 , for example…
Yes, simply because in the 1970s we were creating the women’s circuit, and that was more important to us than the Grand Slams. The latter would continue no matter what, but the men had their circuit, not the women. We were riding the Virginia Slims circuit [à l’initiative notamment de Billie Jean King et qui posa les bases de la future Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)] to enable women around the world to compete and earn a living. For us, that was the number one priority.
I always put the Grand Slams above the rest, but the Australian Open at that time was during Christmas, and for me it was unthinkable to spend the holidays away from my family. This is the reason why I have only played in the Australian Open six times. I missed Roland-Garros three times to compete in World Team Tennis, a circuit that took place in the summer, where all the best players played.
You have won at least one Grand Slam title for thirteen years in a row (1974-1986). Today, how do you explain that players often fish consistently, both in a game and over a season?
I think there is a lot more density than in my time. It’s more difficult for the players, they have to be at 90% or 100% in each game. In my time, the tables were weaker during the first laps, I had the impression that the competition only started from the quarter-finals of the Grand Slams.
Now there are more of them on the circuit. Tennis is a dream all over the world, many 5-6 year old girls grow up watching Serena [Williams] or Simona [Halep] on TV and want to emulate them. In my time, little girls dreamed of being star dancers or singers, but not of being athletes and sweating it out on a tennis court. This aspiration only came with the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.
And at the time, you didn’t have a mental coach …
No I didn’t need it, again my strength was my head. Martina was a better athlete than me, as were Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini… I didn’t have a big serve or a more powerful stroke than another, so I had to distinguish myself by my consistency and my concentration. I was on all the balls, every point was extremely important to me. Thanks to these qualities, I made few unforced errors, I never botched a match.
Despite your rivalry with Navratilova, you were close off the courts. Such a friendship is unthinkable today …
The stakes have become too high, a lot of sponsors, money… are at stake. Today, players probably have less fun than we do in our time, they approach their sport more seriously. It’s more professional, the players have teams behind them that they pay: a training partner, a trainer, a mental coach, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist… who form a “bubble” with them.
Very few players on the tour are very close, but there is sympathy between them nonetheless. We didn’t even have a coach in the early 1970s, we had to train together and friendships were formed.
How do you respond to those who find women’s tennis less exciting than in your time and men’s tennis today?
In the 1970s, the circuit had sacred personalities. There was Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, Martina and I, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Björn Borg… but in recent years, in each of her Grand Slam finals, Serena Williams has generated more audiences in the United States than the men’s final. “Coco” Gauff [espoir du tennis américain, 16 ans et 51e mondiale] also makes audience records …
I find women’s tennis more interesting today, because there is another ingredient besides strategy: power. The athletic side is very present in the game. All eras have their charm, with each of the exceptional players, and from this point of view, women are equal to men.
Speaking of the new generation, Cori Gauff, like the Japanese Naomi Osaka (who lives in the United States), are more than tennis players, as evidenced by their commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement …
I believe they can help make minorities more visible in our sport. Tennis needs to be inclusive and no longer labeled as a “sport of the rich for white men”. In the United States, there are more than 250 programs in lower-income neighborhoods for underprivileged children who cannot afford a racket and afford training sessions. Serena, and now Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka no doubt serve as role models for many of them.
You chaired the WTA between 1983 and 1991. Are you one of those who call for a merger with ATP, which governs the men’s circuit?
Today, the circuit has a dozen “mixed” tournaments. But the issue of premiums is likely to be delicate. Many players still believe they deserve to make more money than women, and I don’t believe players would agree to a merger if the bonuses weren’t fair. Such an initiative will require many agreements, to take strong decisions and it will be necessary to see the reaction of the sponsors. It’s a process that takes a lot of thought.
In my opinion, this is a very good idea, but I don’t know if the two entities are working on this specifically. In my opinion, men and women should be equal in all areas, the players serve and maybe hit the ball harder, but at the end of the day the players worked as hard as they did.
Number of Grand Slam singles titles: seven Roland Garros, six US Open, three Wimbledon and two Australian Open.
Total number of singles titles (behind Martina Navratilová, 177, and Margaret Smith, 191).
With 1,304 wins for 144 losses in her career, she has the highest winning percentage in tennis history, men and women alike.
Number of matches won in a row on clay, between 1973 and 1979.
She finished a season as world number one seven times: from 1974 to 1978, in 1980 and 1981.