SEOUL, South Korea — She ties her shoes and grabs her tennis racket. She squeezes in the elevator behind two fencers and an East German handball player.
She walks among swimmers and Greco-Roman wrestlers. She waits behind cyclists and discus throwers. She asks the cafeteria lady to hold the gravy on those potatoes, thank you.
She wears an ID card around her neck. She goes through the security gate. She lives in a dormitory-style room and when she bumps into three Bulgarian weight lifters she says excuse me, and they ask for her autograph.
God, I hope a camera is getting this down.
“What’s been the biggest difference between life as an Olympian and life on the pro tennis circuit?” someone asks.
“Well, I guess you could say we’re a little spoiled,” she admits, crinkling her nose. “We’re used to room service and fancy hotel suites. Like here, when we left the village, we didn’t have a car waiting for us. We had had to take taxis.”
“Did the driver recognize you?”
“No,” she says, “we had to pay!”
She is the most famous face at the Olympic Games, a millionaire grown-up who has returned to play in the amateur sandbox. She mingles with gymnasts, she laughs with pole vaulters, she dabbles in formalities with the occasional Nigerian judo man. Chris Evert? Is that really her? On the Olympic team?
“This is a lot of fun. Everybody’s equal, nobody’s better, we’re not put on a pedestal . . . Of course, I wouldn’t want to do this all year…”
It really is.
Without extras she is still Chrissie For two weeks she is without agents and without limos and without a paycheck. For two weeks she cannot wear her usual tennis clothes, for which companies pay her enormous sums of money. For two weeks she is just another badge number at the Olympic village, just another cafeteria tray — although she’s probably earned $8 million more than the person behind her.
But she is still Chrissie. Regal and charming and in it but somehow above it all. The cameras will follow her at all times here, the way they follow Princess Di or Nancy Reagan on a foreign visit. The tennis team press conference was announced: “Chris Evert and others” and although Tim Mayotte and Pam Shriver and Brad Gilbert were there, nearly all the questions were for the woman with the frosty blond hair. At the Opening Ceremonies, she was mobbed — by other athletes: Japan, Nepal, Brazil, Tanzania. Let’s face it. Having Chris Evert in your Olympics is like having Magic Johnson in your neighborhood basketball game.
“I have to admit, I had some reservations when I heard they were opening Olympic tennis to professionals. We have our big events, like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. We have our shows.
“But when I got here and took part in the Opening Ceremonies and saw the tennis facilities — well, I think Olympic tennis can be as big or bigger than a Grand Slam event one day. I really do.”
Click, click. Flash, flash. She smiles and we lap it up. She is not the favorite. She probably won’t win. But almost nobody asks about medals. The normal questions are out. The special questions are in.
“How’s your room, Chrissie?”
“Comfortable,” she says. “Not luxurious. . .” Living a dream late in her career She is living our dream. Isn’t she? A chance at the Olympics in the twilight of your professional career? Wouldn’t you grab that? Wouldn’t you run out and buy the sneakers and the sweat suit and the stopwatch? At 33, Evert figured her Olympic dreams were about 25 years and a different sport too late. And then tennis was reinserted as a medal event, and opened to the pros.
Some big names said no. Some big names said OK — Edberg and Graf and Sabatini. Evert, who agreed at the last minute was the biggest name of all.
“I think being in the Olympics and holding up that gold medal would be as big a thrill as holding up the Wimbledon plate.
“You know, in tennis we lead a sort of selfish lifestyle. We can get pretty isolated. I’m getting a kick out of mixing with all these other athletes. I’ve never mixed with anybody.”
She laughs. We laugh. She is the queen and she has come to play for her country. She has won Wimbledon, the French, the Australian, the U.S. Open, she has made commercials and done TV and played everywhere for millions of dollars.
And now, she is here, hitting ground strokes in the Olympic stadium. She waves to the Russian volleyball team. She boards the bus with Hungarian gymnasts. She glides across this onetime amateur soil and crowds form and flashbulbs burst and you can almost hear the trumpets that have lured her to Camelot. Something has changed here. Either she has or we have or the Games have. Something.
“When’s her first match?” a photographer was asked.
“Who cares?” he said and kept on snapping.
nterview; Chris Evert