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THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 6 : Commentary : For Evert, Olympics Are Like Another World

Washington Post

Animatedly recounting her experiences at the Olympics’ opening ceremony, Chris Evert talked about standing in the staging tunnel with the rest of the U.S. team, waiting to get into the stadium.

“What was exciting for me was meeting all the athletes, mixing with them. I met about 200 of them. We got our pictures taken. There were autographs . . . “

Stop tape.

Autographs? You asked people for autographs?

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“Well, actually,” Evert conceded, “they asked me.”

There are stars, and then there are Stars. Chris Evert is a Star. She has been center stage worldwide since 1971. She was on Center Court at the U.S. Open the day Janet Evans was born. Of course, the others are asking for Evert’s autograph. She’s on that high shelf, breathing that thin air. What fencers or rowers in their right minds expect to turn around and bump into Chris Evert? Life imitates song: They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar, and say, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’ “Some of the other athletes kiddingly came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I laughed and said, ‘What do you think I’m doing here?’ ”

What, indeed? The Olympics is the last place on earth you’d expect to find the really top tennis pros. No money, honey. Wasn’t it Mats Wilander who said he didn’t see how he could possibly play after he heard the IOC wouldn’t let him wear his commercial patches all over his sleeve like cheap tattoos?

Even if money wasn’t the deal--and just Tuesday, Carl Lewis said, “You can’t lure Chris Evert with money; she’s here because she loves the Olympic Games"--where could a medal in the Olympics possibly stand in relation to Evert’s championship trophies from 18 Grand Slam tournaments? This is the first time in 64 years that tennis is a full-medal Olympic sport. Can you imagine how much ivy grew at Wimbledon during that time?

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“At first, I had reservations as to how much the Olympics would mean to tennis, since we already have our showcase events,” Evert conceded. “But now I think it can be as big or bigger than the Grand Slam tournaments. This can be spectacular.” On a more personal level, she said she suspected that “winning a gold medal--being in that medal ceremony--has to be as thrilling as holding up that Wimbledon plate. The silver and bronze? No. The gold? Yes.”

By now, everyone knows the story of how Evert got here, how at the last moment--after Elise Burgin had been named to the team--Evert decided she wanted to come, and Burgin was unceremoniously given the boot. What turned a sticky situation into total flypaper was the fact that the women were such good friends.

Even now, Evert chafes at how it worked out, insisting, “Believe me, I feel for her; Elise is one of my best friends.” On the other hand, Evert wanted to come. And ever since the world first saw her 17 years ago, who has been able to resist her? She has gone from a ribboned and pigtailed Princess American Pie to Queen Victoria. Who acts more to the manner born than Evert? She was carefully taught to be regal. Every time she comes out to play tennis, I’m surprised she’s not wearing gloves. The thing is, she pulls it off precisely because she’s so comfortable with herself and her standing. From Martina Navratilova, it would sound condescending. From Evert, it’s irresistible.

“I couldn’t commit a year ahead,” she said, as if everyone should understand. And she had other reasons, too: “No. 1, security. There were riots going on. Every time I turned on the TV, there was something horrifying. And No. 2, I was getting married in the fall. When we decided to get married in the summer, that changed my whole perspective. I was available.” Naturally, Evert figured if she was available, it was a done deal. Who wouldn’t move over for her?

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Apparently, conversations with Andy Mill, her husband since July, made the difference. He had been on the U.S. Olympic ski team twice, and he convinced Evert that the Olympic experience was not to be missed. And she was especially keen for it after intestinal flu forced her to default to Steffi Graf in her semifinal U.S. Open match. Graf is here, too, incidentally, and wouldn’t that be a poetic gold-medal match?

So, anyway, here Evert is, wearing a rock so big she needs her two-handed backhand just to lift it, living in the Olympic Family Town with Mill, dishing the dirt with the rest of the women, sort of. Early on, she had a problem with security: She thought she should have more of it. “We take taxis everywhere,” she said, as if everyone should understand the inherent danger. She conceded that there was good news about the cabs: “They’re cheap.” But after 17 years of courtesy cars around the world, the bad news is: “I still have to pay.”

All things considered, though, what’s not to like? She’s here as a newlywed, getting free room and board, pounding the fuzzy ball, no pressure at all, and for the first time in her adult life she’s mixing with athletes from different disciplines and being part of something grander than a shoe contract and a seat on a corporate jet to St. Bart’s.

“It’s a real learning experience. I’m spoiled. I’m used to room service in the morning and hotel suites,” she said with her usual Holly Golightly innocent charm. “But it’s great. Everyone’s equal. No one’s on a pedestal. The Family Town isn’t luxurious or extravagant, but it’s comfortable.”

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She paused a second in consideration of the merits of this new and spartan life, then said completely un-self-consciously, “Of course, I wouldn’t want to do this all year round.”


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