Banked by renewed self-respect, Chris’ competitive fires burn lower but warmer
I was crying two or three times a day for no reason. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t help it. There were a couple of times when I almost cried on court, and it hit me: “Chrissie, you’re not yourself.” I had to take time off. I don’t think of it as a breakdown, but I had just reached my limit. It was a long dark period in my life.
When Chris Evert hit bottom psychologically during a tournament in San Francisco a year ago, she was 22 years old. She had won more than 500 tennis matches during her career, and lost only 45. Her 1977 earnings topped $1.3 million. But when she began to sort out the complex algebra of her emotional needs, Chris found neither a happy nor a balanced equation. “Maybe I was winning too much,” she says. “Night after night after night, it was just too much of a strain to get psyched up like that. It wasn’t just four months since I’d turned pro, it was four years! My personal life was repressed, and everything else was pushed aside—meaning people, my family and friends.”
The sensible alternative, Chris decided, was a four-month separation from tennis. “My dad was against it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘What are you going to do for four months?’ I said, ‘What do you think I am? A tennis robot?’ I just had to get the weight off my shoulders.” Encouraged by Rosie Casals and Billie Jean King, Chris flew home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “At first I went out of my mind, I was so bored,” she says. “But then, to wake up and know I didn’t have to do anything—that I could choose what to do—was wonderful. Ever since I was 10 everything has been planned for me. Suddenly I was free for the first time.”
Chris spent two weeks in New York in a fitness program with Rosie and Billie Jean. She flew to Tucson to watch her friend Stephanie Tolleson play in a tournament. She spent three weeks in Los Angeles—part of the time with Jimmy Connors, her off-and-on boyfriend and ex-fiancé. But most of her sabbatical was spent close to home, visiting old friends and thinking things through. Her younger sister Jeanne, 21, also a tennis pro, left the tour to be with her and to reestablish a closeness that had been strained by invidious comparisons of their abilities. “Jeanne is very bright, very outgoing, very moody,” Chris says affectionately. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve overshadowed her, because except for tennis she can do everything better than me. My family realizes that, and I’m happy they do—it balances everything out.”
Above all, the time off freed Chris of anxiety that had been gnawing since childhood. “I think those four months just wiped it away,” she says. “It didn’t solve a lot of my personal problems—my relationship with Jimmy has been in limbo for about four years now—but I found that no matter what I do I’m still loved and very secure. I was really happy to find that tennis did not dominate my happiness. After the first month I didn’t even have the urge to come back, though I eventually had to for the sake of my career.” When she did return to the game she no longer regarded it as a life-or-death proposition. “When I won Wimbledon in 1976,” she recalls, “I beat Evonne Goolagong in three tough sets, went home to an empty hotel room and was depressed an hour after the match. This year I lost in the finals, and that evening I was dancing at Tramps. I was ecstatic. I still love tennis and I still want to be No. 1, but I don’t want to pay the price of being unhappy. I think I could live with being No. 2.”
Old friends have been especially struck by the change in Chris. “She’s like two different people,” says Ana Leaird, a close companion since high school. “She’s become so much more aware of the people around her. I’ve always understood that part of our friendship was that I would be very involved in her life but she might not know how I was doing in mine. If she was about to play Wimbledon I wouldn’t bother telling her that I flunked a test in college. Now she initiates it—she asks me what’s happening on the job. And she’s more into finding what else is out there besides hitting a tennis ball. A few weeks ago she asked me what was going on at Camp David. I figured she thought it was a tennis camp.”
Contributing to Chris’ mellow outlook is the new man in her life, British tennis pro John Lloyd, 24. “We hit it off very well,” she says. “He’s not a typical tennis player. He’s got very strong values, he’s close to his family and we have the same instincts.” Lloyd, known in the British tabloids as “Flossie” (for his golden locks), is a confessed “night person” who has dated actresses Valerie Perrine and Susan George. “I’m trying to tone down that image because it’s not really me,” he insists. “I’m not out smoking and drinking all the time, and I don’t bugger around if I like someone.”
Curiously, Chris is the first tennis player Lloyd has ever considered romantically. “I never liked women athletes,” he admits. “I don’t like to see women grunt and sweat.” As for Chris, he says, “I always liked her from a distance. I enjoy watching her play, her style on the court. I thought she was the epitome of someone feminine. But around the locker room she was always considered Jimmy’s girl, and it was taboo.” When Chris and John first dated last summer at Wimbledon, they went with a group to a disco. “We were laughing right off,” Lloyd recalls. “You tend to believe what you read in the papers—that Chris is very cool and so forth—but she has a great sense of humor, very sarcastic and dry like the English, and she’s very warm. She’s not hard anymore.”
Though often separated by the tour, they keep in touch by telephone nearly every night. It is an arrangement that Lloyd grudgingly tolerates. “It’s ridiculous not to see each other for a month at a time,” he complains. “You can’t carry on a relationship that way. If everything goes well, like it is at the moment, we’re going to have to make big plans next year.” Does Chris agree? Not even her friends know for sure. “I think John is more serious about this than she is,” says one. “Sometimes it happens that way. Chris starts being serious and then she backs off when the man responds. She was very hurt by Jimmy and she has built up a defense mechanism there.”
Connors is absent, perhaps, but hardly forgotten. His framed photograph hangs opposite the brass bed in Chris’ Los Angeles apartment and she speaks of him in tones of regret. “He was my first love,” she explains, “and there will always be a special feeling there whether we marry other people or not. We were each other’s best friends and lovers at the same time. But we grew up and changed.” Chris has always been wary, though, of the casual philandering of life on the road. “It’s a cinch to meet men,” she says, “but tough to have a real relationship. Guys are either threatened by the idea of going out with Chris Evert, tennis star, or they like it too much.” An important exception was actor Burt Reynolds, 42. “A girl goes through a time in her life when an older, wiser man is very appealing, very good for her,” says Chris. “If Burt likes you, he really takes good care of you. Successful women aren’t a threat to him, and I think that’s what attracted me to him.”
On the women’s tennis circuit, where Chris once reigned lonely at the top, her changing attitudes have not gone unnoticed. “Chris was trained to hate her opponents, like Jimmy was,” says fellow pro Julie Anthony, “and now she has a hard time doing that.” Concedes Chris ruefully: “I never realized how much work is involved in a friendship, because I never took the time before. I just cruised along. Now I can spend hours socializing in the locker room when before I just wanted to get in and out.” She still resents the ostracism she encountered when she first joined the tour, however, and questions the motives of those who cold-shouldered her (without naming names). “I was shy and all,” she recalls, “but I was a nice little kid, not cocky or anything. Also, I brought some femininity to the game—ruffled bloomers, jewelry, ribbons—and before that there was none. I think they were jealous of me. Now I treat the new girls the way I wasn’t treated.”
Chris remains acutely conscious, too, of the tennis public’s indifference to most of her triumphs. “The annoying thing is that people come up to me on the street and tell me they love me, and when I’m introduced for a match there’s a lot of clapping,” she says. “Then when I play they turn against me. It still bothers me. I’ll never get used to it.” Partly because of the emotional support she draws from her teammates, Chris prefers playing World Team Tennis with the Los Angeles Strings to the tournament grind. Though the league is poised constantly on the verge of insolvency, she is its highest-salaried player and No. 1 asset, drawing $400,000 a year, plus an apartment and a chocolate-brown Mercedes convertible.
“Money itself is just not a motivation for me,” she insists. “Until I was 18 and turned pro I never had anything. I went from lower middle class to rich in one year, and that was nice. But I don’t have a lot of possessions—a house or boat or anything like that.” Her father, Jimmy, a Fort Lauderdale tennis instructor, still acts as her manager, and she faithfully heeds his advice to endorse only products she uses—Wilson rackets, Borden’s cheese, Converse tennis shoes, Helene Curtis shampoo and her own line of tennis apparel. Remarkably, at 23, she is already considering her life after tennis, though not with any sense of compulsion. It could be TV, writing or designing clothes. “I don’t really care what I do,” Chris says. “I just want to be happy. I don’t want my life planned out for me anymore. I want surprises. I want some things to be unpredictable. I don’t mind not knowing what’s going to happen next.”