WIMBLEDON, England — There she goes, walking off the greatest tennis court in the world, turning, at the last moment, to wave good-bye. It was not with victory that Chris Evert departed Wimbledon Thursday, but it was, as always, with style. A curtsy for the Royal Box. A smile for her mother and father. You could hear hearts breaking from across the ocean.

There she goes. For 68 minutes she had labored one last time in the loving English sunshine, swatting volleys and her trademark “groundies” and, once in a while, the razor-like, two-handed backhand that made her famous. More often, however, she was soft, slow, a full step behind her youthful opponent, Steffi Graf, who ran her like the deer runs the hunter.

“A few times out there I thought, ‘Boy, if I were only 10 years younger,’ ” Evert would later admit. But she is 34, every inch of her, and so when young Graf blazed her serve down the middle, Evert could only lean toward it, then let it pass. She refused to whiff, she was a former champion. She would die with dignity.

And finally at 3:12 p.m., with not a cloud overhead, she bounced the ball, tossed it high, and double-faulted into the net — game, set, match — proof, for sure, that she is indeed ready to retire after 18 glorious summers on these manicured lawns. The crowd sighed, then applauded wildly, the first of a million thank-you’s. Graf had won this semifinal, 6-2, 6-1 — the most lopsided Grand Slam defeat of Evert’s career — but Graf did not own it. The moment belonged to Chrissie.

To most of us, it always has.

How did you feel with the crowd so behind you today?” Evert was asked in the packed interview room after the semifinal defeat in this, her farewell Wimbledon.

“Well,” she began, then laughed at the irony, “they usually root for the underdog, right?”

Underdog? Yes. She was now the underdog. Not that it mattered — at least not to fans in the States. Especially the men. Sure, she was once the finest women’s tennis player on the planet, and won every Grand Slam title at least twice. But more than that. All those who once had a crush on Chris Evert, raise your hand. You, in the back, with your hand down, you’re lying.

In the world of sports, she was our first date, America’s girlfriend, she made the U.S. male surrender his paranoia about female athletes. Hey, this Chrissie? She’s OK. There was even a Dallas sports writer a few years back who confessed in a column that Chris had always been his dream girl. She somehow read it, called him up and agreed to meet him for an hour, not because she was interested but because she was flattered. And she thought meeting the guy would be, you know, neat.

That’s Chris. She has always walked that fine line between grace and gristle, and don’t ask me why she clicked in American hearts — her eyes do not sparkle, her teeth do not gleam, she is more the prettiest girl in home-ec class than a beach-blanket bombshell — but she did. Not just with men, with everybody. Maybe it was her manners. Maybe it was the little earrings that she wasn’t afraid to wear on court.

Maybe it was that, unlike most female sports stars, her life unfolded in public like a movie star’s. She endured teenage angst, a boyfriend named Connors, marriage to a handsome Brit, divorce from a handsome Brit, a second marriage, to an ex-Olympic skier. Paparazzi. Rumors. Her life was fodder for the National Enquirer. But somehow, to us, she remained above all that. We liked her, as Sally Field might put it, we really liked her.

And her tennis was brilliant. As a kid, she out-baselined them. As a veteran, she outsmarted them. She revolutionized the two-handed backhand and gave birth to a new breed of female athletes. “I never understood why people retired when they were No. 1,” she said Thursday, “because, for me, I’d always wonder if I could win another big tournament.

“But now, I’m obviously past my prime. I played until I didn’t have anything left, nothing in reserve. I’ll be relieved to be retired.”

She laughed. “I’ll probably be mentally exhausted for the rest of my life.”

Not that you can blame her. Just reading her career results takes most of the afternoon — 157 tournament titles, more than any other player, male or female, in history. But it is here, on this Wimbledon grass, Centre Court of the tennis universe, that her scrapbook is most colorful:

There was, of course, the first year, 1972, when she wore pigtails and red ribbons in her hair, still wet from her birth as a professional, and she went all the way to the semifinals before losing to Evonne Goolagong.

There was 1974, when she wore an engagement ring on her finger from Jimmy Connors, and the two of them won their first Wimbledon championships, bookend trophies for their planned marriage. They danced together at the winners’ banquet, Connors with a page boy haircut, Evert with a smile as big as Christmas. One year later, 1975, she was back, as a single woman, losing in the semifinals to Billie Jean King.

There was 1976, America’s birthday, when she captured the title over Goolagong in one of the best finals ever, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, with Evert lofting a backhand lob over Goolagong’s outstretched racket that fell in the corner — good! — and Chris threw her racket into the air, champion again. There was 1977, when she faced Tracy Austin, only 14 years old, with braces on her teeth, the first gust of age for Evert who, just a few years ago, had been the new kid herself.

There was 1981, the third and final championship, which she won without dropping a set, and 1983, the year she took some bad medicine and, weakened and woozy, lost on an outside court to little-known Kathy Jordan in the third round — the only time in her career that Evert failed to reach Wimbledon’s final four.

There were countless whizzing backhands, and untold forehand passing shots, there were blowouts and squeakers and every famous name in the women’s book — Court, Casals, King, Turnbull, Wade, Stove, Jaeger, Navratilova, Shriver, Mandlikova, Graf — and through it all, she remained the same: fair and determined, confident but never haughty, and somehow, if the word can be used when you’re sweating, elegant.

“I can’t really fathom what it would be like here without her,” said Martina Navratilova, with whom she literally dragged women’s tennis from the backstage and said look, world, we can be competitive, too. Martina and Chris have played so many times at Wimbledon, they are considered a fixture, Centre Court’s answer to strawberries.

“A piece of me would be gone without her, that’s for sure,” Martina said.
“But I’ll say this: Chris will be the happiest retired tennis player of all time. She gave an awful lot to this game.”

And in the end, as happens with all athletes, it caught up to her. Graf, the current No. 1, is a different mold, a Superwoman, and teenagers like Arantxa Sanchez and Monica Seles, water bugs, whippets, compact packages of unbridled energy, only further portend doom for Evert.

“What would it take to get you to come back here one more year?” someone asked her.

“A transplant.”

“Of what?”

“A couple different pieces.”

Forget it. This was no fun, watching Graf (who was three years old when Chris first played here) demolish the former champion, run her from corner to corner, rattle her with sonic- boom serves, tease her with drop shots that barely kissed the earth.

Better to wrap up Wimbledon with Evert’s last win, in the quarterfinals Tuesday against unknown Laura Golarsa. There Chris summoned every ounce of a champion’s will to come back from a 5-2 deficit in the final set and win. This was vintage Evert, her eyes focused, the sweat trickling down her neck, she was all parts courage and charisma, seemingly ready to lose gracefully but damn it, not willing to do so. And when she whacked that final forehand right at Golarsa — it smacked off her leg, game, set, match! — she made a fist as if to seize her last win at Wimbledon and never let it go.

When she walked off that court, she seemed to know she had just used her last miracle. So when she walked off Thursday, she spun to the crowd and gave the stands a salute. “If this is my last Wimbledon,” she said afterward, “I wanted to wave good-bye.”

There she goes.

And so it ends, with a final curtsy to the Duchess of Kent and a last glance at the Centre Court she had so often honored. No, she is not officially retired, and yes, it is possible she will still play the U.S. Open and a few other tournaments this year. But let us not turn this into a farewell tour, a la Kareem and Doctor J. In tennis, once you say good-bye to Wimbledon, the rest is just shaking hands.

“It’s funny,” Evert said, smiling, “when I played here at 17, 18, 19, I always knew in the back of my mind that I had time on my side. It was like,
‘Well, if I don’t do it this year, I’ve got 10 years to go.’ The last few years, I’ve looked around and realized this isn’t going to be around for me much longer.

“I guess you appreciate things a little more when you get older.”

The feeling is mutual. Women’s tennis owes an awful lot to Evert, everything from money to endorsements to the influence of the Women’s International Tennis Association, of which she is president. Yet for all the doors she opened to other women, there is still no one in sports quite like her, no one with that blend of firm-jawed determination and prom-queen appeal. Go ahead. Try to think of somebody. We’ll wait. Forever.

Here’s to the end of a damn good run. In Britain they say “well done” instead of congratulations, and for once, the Brits may have it right. As she exited to the dressing room for the last time Thursday, a ball boy approached and asked her for an autograph. She stopped in her tracks and took his pen to sign an autograph? Here?

Why not? What began in pigtails has climaxed in history, and there she goes, forever our girl. Well done, Chrissie. Well done, indeed. CUTLINE Chris Evert reflects on her 6-2, 6-1 loss to Steffi Graf. “A few times out there I thought, ‘Boy, if I were only 10 years youncer.'” Evert said.

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