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Monday, June 1, 2009

Chris Evert – June Vintage Athlete of the Month

The surprising loss in the French Open by the seemingly invincible Rafael Nadal got me thinking about other players who displayed clay court dominance during their careers. Many have enjoyed periods of dominance on the surface, but no tennis player, man or woman, in the modern era of tennis has been more unbeatable on clay than Chris Evert.

Between August 1973 and May 1979, the June Vintage Athlete of the Month won an amazing 125 consecutive matches on clay while losing only seven total sets. After losing a third set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin in the semifinals of the 1979 Italian Open, she rebounded to win her next 72 matches on the surface.

She won seven French Open Championships and three of her six U.S. Open titles came while the tournament was played on clay.

Even though Evert was particularly tough to beat on clay, it wasn’t like she didn’t also display dominance on other surfaces.

Easily the most consistent player in women’s tennis history, Evert won at least one grand slam title in 13 consecutive years. She reached at least the semifinals in each of her first 34 grand slam appearances and 52 times out of 56 total appearances in the four biggest tournaments in tennis.

While her total of 18 total grand slam singles titles is tied for fourth in women’s tennis history, it is likely she would have won considerably more titles had she participated in all four majors every year during her career.

Instead, Evert participated in the Australian Open only six times (winning twice). After winning the French Open in 1974 and 1975, she skipped the tournament for three years before returning to win the title five more times between 1979 and 1986.

Her overall career singles record of 1,309-146 (.900) ranks as the best of any player in professional tennis history.

Others may have done more to champion the cause of equality for women’s tennis, but there is no question that women’s tennis would not have the broad appeal it enjoys today without Evert.

She burst onto the scene as a 16-year old in 1971, making the semifinals of the U.S. Open in her first grand slam tournament. With a pretty smile and wicked two-handed backhand, Evert opened the game of women’s tennis to a new generation of fans.

Tennis in the mid-1970s enjoyed an American revival as teenage girls flocked to courts across the country because they wanted to learn to play like Chris Evert. Teenage boys naturally followed because they wanted to be where the girls were.

Her impact on the tennis world was soon obvious as teenage girls including Andrea Jaeger, Tracy Austin and Mary Joe Fernandez began popping up on the professional tour.

That Evert was able to maintain her great success for such a long period of time is especially remarkable considering that she grew up right in front of her adoring public.

Her engagement to men’s tennis star Jimmy Connors in 1974 made national headlines, as did their subsequent breakup.

In 1976 Sports Illustrated named the 22-year old Evert as their “Sportswoman of the Year.”

After being romantically linked to a number of high-profile men, in 1979 Evert married British tennis player John Lloyd.

Throughout the 1980s, Evert-Lloyd continued to rank among the top players in women’s tennis. Though Martina Navratilova had eclipsed Evert-Lloyd as the top player in the game, she ranked among the top three players in women’s tennis every year through 1988.

After divorcing John Lloyd in 1987, Evert married two-time Olympic downhill skier Andy Mill in 1988.

In 1989, she retired from the game with 157 career singles titles.

For most of the next two decades, Evert would appear occasionally as a commentator for one of the grand slam championships, but spent most of her time raising her three sons.

In 2006 Evert and Mills divorced and less than two years later she married popular professional golfer Greg Norman. Evert now can occasionally be seen walking the course during Norman’s tournaments.

Each month, Sports Then and Now celebrates and remembers the accomplishments of a notable athlete from past generations. If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Vintage Athlete of the Month, send me a nomination by e-mail.

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