NEW YORK — Have you seen this commercial for Sports Illustrated? Two women playing tennis, one older, one younger. They exchange volleys, and you hear a voice whisper: “These young kids are always trying to beat me. . . . ” Then the older woman gets ready to serve, and you recognize her as Chris Evert Lloyd, and you realize it’s her voice you’re hearing, and it says, “We’ll see about that.” And the players fade out, and you’re left hanging, wondering how it all ends.
Well? How will it all end? Chris against the kids? Chris against herself? Chris, now 31, against Father Time?
What a moment to ask! Today, when she plays in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, this time against Helena Sukova. Sixteen straight years she has at least reached the semifinals in this tournament. How long is that? Listen to this: King, Court, Stove, Goolagong, Jausovec, Navratilova, Melville, Turnbull, Austin, Jaeger, Durie, Bassett, Mandlikova. These are the names of her past opponents in this round. How long? That long. Sweet 16. Most athletes can’t fit in the pants they wore 16 years ago.
Do you remember that first Open in 1971? Nixon was president, Mick Jagger was still in his 20s, and Chris Evert Lloyd was merely Chrissie Evert, a pony-tailed 16-year-old missing the first week of high school so she could challenge Billie Jean King for the right to play in the final.
She was the upstart then, the nervous amateur — she wouldn’t turn pro for another two years — and she would lose that day, but she would eventually become a champion, and then a superstar, and now she is her sport’s major spokeswoman, the older player in that TV commercial, the symbol of aged determination.
And what makes Evert Lloyd special, what makes her arguably the greatest American sportswoman ever, is the way she handled all those roles, all along the way.
True, the affection for Evert Lloyd in this country is at least partly patriotic. She has long been our favorite ambassador in a sport that plays three of its four biggest tournaments overseas. And her career has been like a series of postcards from your kid sister, upon which many of us can chart our past.
Where were you when she played King in that first U.S. Open? Oh yeah, at the neighbor’s place, watching on the color TV. Where were you when she finally won Wimbledon? Oh yeah, Uncle Charlie’s, at the barbecue. Where were you when she dated Burt Reynolds? And Jimmy Connors? And Jack Ford? Didn’t you see that at the supermarket check-out counter in the late ’70s? And didn’t she have marriage problems with her husband, John Lloyd? Where did you read that? And didn’t she finally beat Navratilova at the French Open last year. Didn’t you see that on TV Saturday morning, and you got a warm feeling that had nothing to do with the coffee?
Sweet 16. Chris Evert Lloyd. Her images come back in a collage of hairstyles and tennis outfits: the pudgy teenager, the icy champion, the shaggy-haired veteran, the slimmer, sharper-featured woman we see playing today.
We grew up with her and she with us.
“Did you think you would be playing here now back when you were 20?” someone asked her Wednesday, after she beat Manuela Maleeva to advance to today’s semifinal.
“No, when I was 20, I wanted to get married and have babies,” she answered.
“I thought I would play a few years and get married and that would be that. .
. . The thought of playing 11 years was scary then. I used to look at Billie Jean King and Margaret Court and think, ‘How can they still be playing at that age?’ “
Well? How can Evert Lloyd still be playing at 31? Answer No. 1: She is playing well. At times, better than ever.
“The first thing that goes isn’t your legs,” she said the other day, while sitting in the players’ lounge after her match. “The first thing that goes is your nerve. You play so many younger players who have nothing to lose.
“When I’m playing well, I feel like I’m playing better than ever. It’s just that I can’t hold onto that level of play all the time. Ten years ago it was automatic. Now, I’m human.”
Which isn’t so bad, is it? Should she win the U.S. Open this weekend, Evert Lloyd will likely be ranked No. 1 in the world for the year. True, Navratilova is right there. So are Hana Mandlikova — who beat Evert Lloyd here last year — and Steffi Graf.
Which is reason No. 2 for her continued career. The challenge.
“When I was No. 1 for a few years and then Tracy Austin came along and beat me I was really upset about it,” Evert Lloyd said. “She and Martina knocked me off the pedestal and my ego couldn’t take it.
“But that’s what kept me in this game. If I hadn’t had any competition, I think after five or six years at No. 1 I would have been bored.”
“Have you ever really played up to potential?” she was asked.
“Not really,” she said. “If I was Martina and had every shot in the book I think it would be easier to get disenchanted or a little bit bored. She doesn’t have that much to work on. But I do.”
You wouldn’t know it from the numbers. Evert Lloyd has won more than $7 million in prize money alone. But what makes her the best female tennis player to ever carry an American birth certificate is this wall of statistical fact: She is the only woman to win at least one Grand Slam title for 13 years in a row — and she is the only woman to make at least the semifinals in 47 of 48 Grand Slam tournaments in her career. Think about that. Every Wimbledon, French Open, U.S. Open and Australian Open she has ever played in — as a teenager, as a veteran, in good years and bad years — she has always made it at least to the semifinals, except that one time. Wimbledon, 1981. She lost in the fourth round to Kathy Jordan. She was sick as a dog. After the match she threw up. You’re gonna count that?
Still, it is not numbers that account for her popularity. It is personality. Evert Lloyd is perceived as the most graceful, well-mannered, and yes, ladylike player in the game. From her looks to her voice to her cool temper to her nodding after her opponent makes a good point, she will constantly be described as a player with “class” — a word mishandled more than any word since “relationship,” but in Evert Lloyd’s case, it happens to be accurate.
Pure feminists may prefer a stauncher form of player, but tough on them. There are those of us who still like to tell a difference between the men and the women. It is not every player who has a Dallas columnist admit his fantasy is to take her out on a date. Evert Lloyd responded to that writer, too, and finally met him. And from all accounts, it was an enjoyable — and platonic
— couple of hours.
So Chris Evert Lloyd. Yes. You are sure you know her, right? Think again. Between Martina and Chris, there is no question who is the more ruthless, the quicker to go for the jugular.
And with all the flighty egos on the circuit, only one major female tennis star in recent memory had an affair with an English rock star — while both were married — and was ready to leave her husband for him.
John McEnroe laughs at Evert Lloyd’s image as a Goody Two- shoes, while his is so shadowed. And true, Evert Lloyd is far from saintly. She is a fan of excitement and is doggedly determined to win at all costs. But she comes across as human, which is all most Americans want out of their heroes deep down. There was the time when she won Wimbledon and admitted to going back to an empty hotel room, no one to share it with, and feeling depressed. People remember that stuff. They empathize.
So what’s it gonna be? What happens when Evert Lloyd throws that ball up in that commercial? Who wins? Who shows whom?
Well, if you’re talking retirement Evert Lloyd has simply not made up her mind. She has a knee injury now, her left knee. It is not often written about, but it is very real. A doctor has already recommended six weeks off.
Then there is the family she wants. Her husband announced his retirement from playing this year. Speculation is that Chris will soon follow. But you never know. What would she do? “This is a great life,” she said recently of the tour. “It’s hard to think of stopping.”
Remember that this is a woman whose marriage almost broke up for the excitement of love with a rock star. Don’t be so sure the idea of nursing a child in a quiet room isn’t as frightening to her in its serenity as it is appealing.
So for now, Evert Lloyd goes on. She has endured most of the life-trials we all see by 31. She has played the best and beaten them, and when they beat her, she came back again. Win or lose today, she deserves a good hailing, a cake with enough candles to honor her amazing career.
How will it all end? Like the commercial said, “We’ll see about that.” For now, she remains as always a part of the American tapestry, right where it all began, at the U.S. Open. Sweet 16, and never better. CUTLINE Chris Evert Lloyd is still in the swing at 31: “When I’m playing well, I feel like I’m playing better than ever.”