NEW YORK — It was all behind her now, the last match, the last press conference, the last walk through the crowd as they sang her name and reached to touch her. Chris Evert was alone with a friend in the women’s locker room, dressing for the last time after 19 glorious summers of U.S. Open tennis.
“I have an idea,” she suddenly said to Ana Leaird, a high school classmate who now serves as PR director for womens’ tennis. “Tell Andy I fainted.”
“Yeah. Tell him I fainted.”
It would be a natural reaction, no? After all this? To faint? Hadn’t she just said good-bye to the game she had dominated, molded, loved and honored for the last two decades? Hadn’t she suffered the whole continental press corps just waiting to witness her final historical point? Wouldn’t that be a perfect reaction? To pass out?
Leaird burst from the locker room.
“Chrissie fainted!” she said, rushing up to Andy Mill, Chris’s husband.
Mill moved quickly towards the locker room door . . .
And out popped Evert, all smiles.
Applause, please. The lady leaves ’em laughing. She was never much for teardrops, anyhow. Emotion may be the fire of competition, but ice was more Chris Evert’s game, icy stare, ice-cold concentration. That she was never unkind to an opponent may be the greatest tribute we can pay her because, given her competitive nature, she should have been.
Instead, she was the role model for a generation, she was, pardon the expression, a gentleman athlete, fusing effort and grace, throw sneakers and Emily Post in a bag and you get Christine Marie Evert, queen of the courts, America’s prom date — and there she was Tuesday, taking the hard serve of young Zina Garrison and returning it into the net for her final point of Grand Slam tennis.
“GAME, SET MATCH . . . ” the announcer began and the crowd rose to its feet and began the farewell clap. Evert, 34, who had told the world weeks ago that this would be her last Grand Slam tournament, jogged forward and shook hands with Garrison. No tears. Not for Chris, that is.
Zina would start crying in a minute.
“Hey, I remember going up to Chris and asking for her autograph when I was 16,” Garrison, 25, later explained. “I mean, this was really emotional.”
For everyone but Evert. She kept her cool by squeezing her lips into a smile, then a grimace, then a smile again, the way she has done so many times on the court. They were hoping for a storybook ending here in New York, they were hoping that the Open, her tennis cradle when she was pigtailed and 16 years old, would somehow serve as her last gold ribbon.
She got pretty far. Reached the quarterfinals. And then the creak of age arrived — not in her knees but in her mind. “What happened today is the reason I’m retiring,” she said in the stuffed press room, after Garrison ousted her, 7-6, 6-2. “I play a great match two days ago, and then I come out flat for the next one. It’s been happening to me all year. I can’t sustain my intensity every single time out there. That’s how I knew it was time to get out.”
Trust her. She is showing characteristic wisdom, right to the end. How nice to see a champion leaving when she can still beat nearly everybody. What a lovely shadow that throws over her career accomplishments: 18 Grand Slam Championships — seven French, six U.S. Opens, three Wimbledons and two Australians. And how many titles? One hundred and fifty seven? More tnan any player ever — male or female? You want to know how long Chris Evert has been around? At this tournament alone she has defeated 78 different opponents. Can that be right? Can you even name half that many womens’ tennis players?
Sure, she will be remembered for the pigtails and the kisses with Jimmy Connors and the curtsies at Wimbledon’s Centre Court and the marriage to a handsome Brit and another to a handsome Olympic ski star, but mostly, Chris Evert will be remembered for this:
“Are you glad it’s over?”
“Well, I thought i would be glad when it was over, but I’m not really relieved now because of how I played two days ago. I mean, I thought I was just starting to play the kind of tennis where I could challenge anybody . .
She never gave up.
She still doesn’t.
As Evert left the stadium, she was spotted by young fans milling around the souvenir stands — first one, then three, then dozens. Children. In a gulp, they were all around her. Some in sweatshirts, some in dresses.
“Chrissie, over here!”
“Chrissie, we love you!”
Children. Less than half her age. Less than a third her age. Here is Chris Evert’s legacy, the kids, the girls, especially, who now find it’s OK to be a female athlete, it’s more than OK, it’s cool, it’s good, it can be done without sacrificing your personality, without turning into some lead- footed monster. This is what Chris Evert leaves behind: An army of size 3 tennis dresses, whacking the ball as if it were a pinata filled with candy.
As she made her way out of the grounds, Evert passed her mother and father, Colette and Jimmy, who started her playing on the public courts of Ft. Lauderdale back in the 60’s. They don’t come up that way much anymore, the public courts. Mostly it’s private lessons, live-away camps, personal masseuses. One of the few players out there today from the public courts is Garrison, the woman who sent Chris packing. There’s a nice symmetry there, I think.
“Excuse me,” said a heavyset blond woman in an oversized pink sweatshirt.
“Are you Mrs. Evert? I just want to say thank you.”
“Oh,” answered Chrissie’s mom. “What for?”
“For doing such a wonderful job with your daughter. My daughter plays tennis and I always taught her to act like Chrissie on the court. I’m proud to say she had, and I just want to thank you for that.”
Yeah. From all of us.
For the record, the end came at 4:29 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. She wore a striped turquoise jersey and blue skirt. SHe had a red tennis bag. She watched
films the night before and said she was going out to dinner when she got home. The trivia about Chris Evert’s final Grand Salm match will go on for a long time, but not as long as her memory. There were a thousand quotes to mark her departure and maybe none more curiously eloquent than 13 year-old Jennifer Capriati, the budding star from Chris’s hometown, who hugged the former champion and, if she’s lucky, absorbed some of those magic vibes.
“It was a bummer,” Capriati said.
Yeah, it was.
Here’s to her power, her style, her two-handed backhand, the way a bead of sweat seemed to dance down her temples, her victories, her defeats, her wonderful wars with Navratilova, Graf, Austin, King, Stove, Goolagong, Mandlikova, Shriver, Jaeger and Court — and the way she was able to joke when
it was all, finally, over. She said good-bye, fittingly, in Louis Armstrong Stadium, named for a man who immortalized the following lyrics:
A kiss to build a dream on
She gave us a lot more.