Aspen is a long way from Ft. Lauderdale’s Holiday Park, where Jimmy Evert taught his 5-year-old daughter to hit a tennis ball. But there she is anyway, Chris Evert, the part-time snow bunny with the two-handed backhand.
Something remarkable has happened, after all these years. The former “Ice Maiden” of the tennis court has made a home in the snow country with skier Andy Mill. This is a union that makes sense. For Evert, the ice and snow may mean that her reputation has finally caught up with reality, and just in time, too, before she retires.
Evert is 34 and the talk that dominates any conversation about her is not about playing tennis. It is about not playing tennis. So many people have tried that, at last count, Evert has been retired more times than a stable of thoroughbreds. She should live in Kentucky, not Colorado.
“I never bring it up,” Evert said. “It’s just that I’m 34 and everybody takes it for granted that retirement is on my mind.”
This retirement thing probably won’t go away until Evert goes away. It’s always there. It’s just as though Mill had given Evert a big diamond set in a necklace. A Mill stone around her neck.
Last month, though, the Evert retirement bandwagon picked up speed. It began innocently enough when she told reporters at a press conference in Boca Raton, Fla.: “I’m just saying this probably is my last year.” All right.
Then four of London’s Fleet Street newspapers picked up the story, even though their reporters were not present in Florida. In fact, they weren’t even close. They were all in Australia.
But when the story hit the streets in England, the quote from Evert was changed: “I’m just saying this is my last year.”
Of course, that is something altogether different.
Still, Evert does not come away blameless for the confusion generated by this episode.
“I feel obligated to give an answer because everybody wants to know,” she said.
“When they asked me (about retiring), I sort of gave a flippant answer. I said ‘Let’s put it this way: I’d be surprised if I played a full year next year.’ And they ran to the typewriter and sort of took a few things for granted and they had retired me at the end of the year.”
Ah, but Jim Martz of the Miami Herald, who was at Evert’s Florida press conference, doesn’t remember it quite that way.
“We didn’t run to any typewriters anywhere,” he said. “She was very succinct in what she said and was stronger about the retirement talk than ever before. We all heard the same thing.”
So there you have it. Sure, Evert is going to retire, she just doesn’t know when. Evert said that she is not a long-term planner and never has been. Instead, she said she will see how she feels in December. Before then, she will play a scaled-down schedule, beginning with her second tournament of the year, the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Indian Wells, starting next Monday.
If she doesn’t play the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles in August, which she almost certainly will although she has not yet signed up for it, then Indian Wells could be Evert’s last tournament appearance in California.
Evert laughs at such speculation.
“Most of the tournaments I play in, they advertise this could be her last match in the area and I’m thinking ‘Who told you that, buddy?’ ” Evert said. “Gee, to try to get a few more people out, they’ll do anything.”
Since her marriage last summer to Mill, a former Olympic skier, the emphasis in Evert’s life has moved away from tennis. She won four events last year and also kept her No. 3 ranking for the second year, behind Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.
But Evert was winless in the Grand Slams for the second consecutive year, after winning at least one Slam event for 13 straight years, from 1974 through 1986. At this stage of her career, Evert thinks it only natural that interest in her personal life--and when she may have more of one--take precedence over her tennis.
“The press . . . has been writing about me for 20 years about my tennis,” Evert said. “And quite frankly, the last two years I haven’t won a Grand Slam title, so it’s not like I’m No. 1 and they can talk about my great tennis.
“I still win four to five tournaments a year and I still have my big wins occasionally, but it’s probably a little juicier to talk about the fact that my husband is an ex-Olympian, he’s good-looking and we have a home in Aspen.”
There are two considerations for retirement, Evert said. One is her physical condition, which last year was not always tip-top. Bothered by a heel spur, Evert lost to Arantxa Sanchez in the third round at the French Open. Evert defaulted to Graf in the semifinals at the U.S. Open because of a stomach virus.
Evert said that although it gets more difficult each year to stay in great shape, training can help her get back what she has lost.
“But the mental part, you can never get it back if it leaves you,” she said. “It’s like, ‘How much do I have in reserve?’ That will probably be the factor that retires me.”
The other issue in setting a retirement date is Evert’s desire to start a family with Mill.
“The clock is ticking away,” Evert said.
“On the other hand, I can have a baby when I’m 35 or 36, so I don’t have a set date.”
When Evert does decide to retire, she will not go quietly. A global farewell tour is already being discussed by Evert’s representatives at International Management Group. Evert would play the No. 1 player from as many as 10 countries during a two-week tour.
After that, there is talk that Evert would join NBC-TV as its tennis commentator. The subject came up at that odd press conference in Florida.
“I sorta wasn’t supposed to say anything about that,” Evert said.
That’s because Joanne Russell is currently employed in that position.
“I think something will be cemented when I stop playing, but right now, they’ve got a cast and I think they would not like anything definite in the press,” Evert said.
Kevin Monaghan, a spokesman for NBC Sports, said it was the intention of no one to upset Russell, although he did say Evert is attractive to the network.
“Obviously, if she became available, we’d want to talk to her,” he said. “I mean, we’re talking to her already, but I mean seriously.”
Until then, the only thing serious about Evert is that she is going to play tennis as seriously as she thinks about not playing it. When Evert really, truly retires, there is probably one person who will miss her in the tournaments more than anyone else: Navratilova.
It was Navratilova and her close friend, Judy Nelson, who introduced Evert to Mill at a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen. Soon, all four will be neighbors, as quickly as Navratilova’s Aspen ranch house is finished.
Navratilova said that when she finally says goodby to Chris, there will be many things for her to think about.
“Images come into my head about Chris,” Navratilova said. “I think for me, the main thing is her determination, her single-mindedness. I guess because of the kind of game that she has, she has had to (be that way), otherwise she would have been just another player.
“People say that it’s all in the mind, that everybody’s strokes are the same and the rest is mental,” Navratilova said. “And that’s bull. Her strokes are better than just about anybody.”
Evert turned pro on Dec. 21, 1972, and if she does indeed retire in December, her career will have spanned 18 years. There have been 157 singles titles and 18 Grand Slam victories along the way, perhaps more to come.
Said Evert: “It’s nice to know I wasn’t a flash in the pan. Growing up, I would always hear about Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills and Billie Jean King and I think that you could put Martina and I in that same sentence now.
“That’s a wonderful feeling, to know you’re one of the best.”