It’s summer, which means many of us will be tuned into tennis, watching the superstar Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens, and Romania’s Simona Halep as they vie for championships. But let’s think back to when women’s tennis galvanized us, almost 50 years ago. It was the beginning of a new era for female athletes. Our younger selves were amazed by the athleticism and grace of the players, and many of us idolized Chris Evert. In 1972, at only 18 years old, Evert became a pro. She competed for 17 years and won a Grand Slam title 13 years in a row.
‘Outside my family, Billie Jean King was my one real role model.’
In an era where femininity and aggressiveness were considered mutually exclusive, she was respected in the public eye for being a strong female athlete with a sunny smile. Sports Illustrated dubbed her the “Sweetheart of Wimbledon.” Thanks to her, generations of women started wearing tennis skirts, whether they played tennis or not. Butterick had its own Chris Evert tennis skirt sewing pattern.
When I interviewed the tennis icon at the recent Indian Wells tournament in Palm Springs, I couldn’t resist asking about those tennis skirts. I am a strong believer in the science of embodied cognition, which posits that what you wear impacts your performance. Basically, if you think you look good, you feel good, and, as a result, you perform well. I asked Evert if she believed in this science.
“Definitely! I had a favorite outfit—my finals’ outfit,” she said. “It was pink—a good luck outfit. I felt pretty. I’m sorry, but I did.”
I was surprised to hear a legend apologize for choosing an athletic outfit because it made her feel pretty—especially if she felt it helped her perform better. “Why did you apologize?” I asked her.
Evert paused. “Because I don’t want all the focus to be on appearance,” she responded.
Finding Her Bold Role Model
Evert’s dedication to her sport is why women and men followed her, some to the point of breaking doctor’s orders to see in her in person. Said one fan when I mentioned I’d be interviewing Evert, “In 1989, only one week after my C-section I left my bed to go watch Chris play Martina [Navratilova] in Denver. I idolized her!” Evert empowered generations of women to live boldly both on and off the court. But who were her role models at a time where there weren’t many female athletes?
“I wasn’t the kind of kid who had posters on my wall of other athletes. My role models were my parents in the way they lived their life and the integrity they had. But outside my family, Billie Jean [King] was my one real role model. I was shy. She would always encourage me to play more aggressive tennis, speak out, and not be afraid to make mistakes.”
‘When I’ve been on TV or in business, I found sometimes men didn’t listen to me. It’s a very frustrating feeling. You want to scream.’
Forty-five years ago this month, Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis association—the first women’s sports association to demand equal pay for equal play. This anniversary comes in the middle of the #MeToo movement and a heightened gender pay-gap awareness. The 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes—the story of the famous 1973 match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs—was released last fall to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Title IX.
Billie Jean paved the way for female athletics as a whole, not just in tennis, Evert explained. “Billie Jean was ahead of her time. Right now, the U.S. Women’s soccer team is fighting for equal pay. Thirty years ago, we had equal prize money in the Grand Slams because of Billie Jean King. Every sport should have a Billie Jean King.”
Women’s tennis may have secured equal prize money during Evert’s competitive years, but were female tennis players given the same respect their male counterparts were? I asked her what kind of issues she experienced in her earlier years, seen through our current lens of #MeToo.
“Nobody tried to sexually abuse me,” she said, “but I think in the past, men have been listened to and valued more than women. Now we can look a man in the eye, and he knows, ‘You’d better listen to me because I listen to you. Give me the same respect.’ When I’ve been on TV or in business, I found sometimes men didn’t listen to me. I didn’t feel valued. I didn’t feel respected and heard. It’s a very frustrating feeling. You want to scream, but then when you scream, you’re—a bitch. Or something’s wrong with you.”
A Public Figure’s Private Life
Evert has most likely had more than her share of situations that made her feel like screaming. A gossipy press has fed off her three divorces. In his memoir, former fiancé and tennis champion Jimmy Connors (who won eight Grand Slams compared to her 18) aired matters about their intimate life that would have had many people seeking revenge. But Evert has held her tongue, merely expressing her disappointment that her former partner had publicly spoken out about such personal matters. And she’s remained private about her brief marriage to pro golfer Greg Norman, which became tabloid fodder.
“Poker face”—whether on the court or with the press —Evert has stayed true to her nickname. She was also known as the “ice-queen” and was compared to her more emotionally expressive and younger rival Martina Navratilova.
‘Menopause was one of the worst times of my life. For those two years, I was emotional; I was defensive; I was insecure.’
“I needed to get the job done and that was the best way I knew how to focus,” said Evert of her steely reputation. “I feel like any kind of drama or emotions would distract me from being focused. I think it made me more emotional because I suppressed it.” She admits that off the court she was plenty emotional.
At the moment, she’s not looking for the kind of emotions that come with dating and romantic involvement. “I needed to be alone for five or six years to find peace in my heart,” she recently told People. “I had to learn how to rely on myself and not on other people.”
When I asked her what advice she gives her adult sons (she has three with champion skier Andy Mill) about relationships, it all boiled down to one word: “Communication, communication, communication.” Evert paused and added a few more words: “Treat her as an equal. Treat her with respect.”
Chris Evert Today: Ready to Take On Tomorrow
Evert certainly deserves respect for her illustrious career. She has reached more Grand Slam tournaments than any female tennis player; she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995; she served as president of the Women’s Tennis Association for almost a decade; she’s currently a tennis analyst for ESPN; and she has created her own line of athletic clothing. What she’s most passionate about, though, is providing guidance to the young girls at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I want to be remembered for not only the wins I’ve had but for giving young girls hope. I was a young girl from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, without a lot of money. I wasn’t the quintessential athlete. I wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but I made it happen. I worked hard. I had desire and discipline. I want to give that hope to young girls—to not be intimidated. Anyone can achieve their dreams with hard work and desire.”
‘I want to be remembered for not only the wins I’ve had but for giving young girls hope.’
Evert is still obviously a hard worker herself: she’s in immaculate shape at 63 years old. She credits a healthy diet, disciplined sleep habits (eight to nine hours a night), and an exercise routine of tennis, strength training, and hot yoga. As a spokesperson for Osteo Bi-Flex, she’s a huge advocate for stretching and protecting her joints with supplements.
When asked if menopause impacted her wellness, she perked up and explained, “What’s not talked enough about are the mental and emotional issues. For me there weren’t that many physical issues—night sweats, that’s about it. But I felt emotionally different. It was one of the worst times of my life. For those two years, I was emotional; I was defensive; I was insecure. It was like someone took over my body. I don’t know what the heck happened. That’s what needs to be discussed—what hormonally happens to the brain.”
For many of us, life can sometimes feel like riding a hormone-driven emotional roller coaster. As our conversation concluded, she shared this final message, which can guide all of us: “In a tennis match, you can lose the first set and still win the match. You can fight your way out of adversity. You’re never down and out until the last point. There’s always hope.”