Ronald B. Scott
February 16, 1976 12:00 PM

Although she has reached the pinnacle of her business at the weanling age of 21, Christine Marie Evert is almost excessively unpampered. She lives in her parents’ spacious but modest five-bedroom stucco house in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She never carries more than a few dollars in her purse and she has only one credit card, which she rarely uses. She wilted in embarrassment when the AP voted her Woman Athlete of the Year for 1974 and again for 1975: “I’m just a normal 21-year-old girl who is very good at tennis,” she says with a shrug. “My sport just happens to get more publicity than the others.”

Chris has not been beaten on clay since July 1973; she won 94 matches and lost 5 last year and earned $362,225. But the one aspect of her life which has attracted as much attention as her steadiness on court is her vertiginous romance with Jimmy Connors. At least that was true until she began stepping out last month with handsome Jack Ford of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Fords, Washington’s most eligible young bachelor.

She invited Jack, 23, to watch her play in the Virginia Slims of Washington tournament and then convoy her to dinner. To make a good impression, Ford, who graduated last June from Utah State, borrowed a friend’s car. The heater in his own palsied 1972 Jeep was on the blink.

After breezing through her match, she and Jack dashed off to Rocky Racoon’s Saloon for some Mexican food. “We didn’t agree on one thing the whole night,” she said later. “He likes country and western music, I like rock. He likes boats, I get seasick. I like to lie on the beach in the sun, he hates it. You name it and we disagreed.”

Nevertheless, they managed to see each other six more times and became close friends. “It’s the most dates I’ve ever had in a week,” Chris said. Jack thereupon made her an offer she could hardly refuse: an invitation to a state dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin two days hence.

Chris almost refused. The tournament was over (she won, of course) and she was anxious to go on to New York. The local gossip columnists were wondering out loud if this was the start of something big. And they did make a stunning couple. But Chris was wearying of the chase—not of her by Jack, but of them by the press. “It would have been nice to get to know Jack without reporters following us everywhere we went,” she complained. “It was difficult to be spontaneous and natural.”

Chris’s best friend and fellow tennis pro, Kristien Kemmer Shaw, advised her to accept the invitation—”no matter what. A girl doesn’t get many chances to dine with the President.” Chris agreed, but turned down an invitation to sleep over at the White House. She stayed in a hotel a few blocks away.

While Jack buzzed up to New York to work out the details of his first job (he will be the Washington director of youth marketing for a travel agency), Chris took the train to Philadelphia where friends helped her shop for a new dress. “I won’t say how much it cost, my mother would shoot me,” she admitted after buying a sleek black evening gown at Nan Duskin.

That night she sipped champagne in the East Room. “Come dance with me,” President Ford urged her. “Jack doesn’t dance.” “He’s not at all what I expected,” Chris confided of her cheek-to-cheek encounter with Jerry Ford. “He’s so relaxed and sincere.”

Twelve hours later she leaned back in the airliner taking her to Manhattan. “It was fun. I think I’ve made a close friend. I could call and talk to Jack anytime, but that’s all there is to it. The most important woman in Jack’s life,” Chris said with a wry smile, “is his dog, Riva.”

And the most important man in Chris’s life is still Jimmy Connors. “I can’t seem to get him out of my system,” she says. “It was really exciting to read about our romance when things were going well, but when it turned sour it was terrible. We don’t talk about last year’s Wimbledon at all. I won’t say that reading about Jimmy and Susan George [a 25-year-old actress whom Connors dated briefly] cost me the title at Wimbledon, but I certainly was distracted.” Before she left Washington, she dashed off a quick note to Jimmy, who was playing in Philadelphia: “Did you lose my telephone number?”

Although their romance seems unavoidably cooled by their separate careers, it is far from over. “I think about him constantly. I keep telling myself that if I ever have children Jimmy would make a terrific father,” says Chris. “But we’re different together now. We talk like close friends. We both know that we would be shortchanging ourselves if we didn’t give tennis everything for the next couple of years. It’s what I’ve been working toward for 15 years. And he’s been at it even longer. We rushed into an engagement, and for three years I didn’t even look at another man. Now I am looking and so is he. We have to decide whether we really want each other.”

To date Chris has won three Virginia Slims Championships, the French and Italian opens twice and Wimbledon and Forest Hills once, and last year earned more money from tournament tennis than any other player, male or female. But “I can’t see myself doing this for more than three or four more years—I mean what do you do after you’ve won everything there is to win? All my life tennis has been my main interest. I’ve missed a lot. I don’t know much about the theater, I don’t read many good books because it takes too much mental energy and I need all I have for tennis,” she says. “I used to run back to the hotel room after every match so I could rest up for the next one. I’m not doing that this year. I want to see the cities where I play. I want to meet new people and open myself up more.”

When she succeeded Billie Jean King as president of the Women’s Tennis Association, most observers expected her to be a pliable figurehead. Instead she has proved businesslike and forceful. “Billie Jean knew her power and she frequently abused it,” says one player. “That’s not Chrissie’s style. She is more judicious, she’s willing to represent views that don’t necessarily square with her own.”

Despite her increasing outside commitments, Chris’s game seems to grow stronger. She lost only one set the week she was rushing around with Jack Ford. Even her style—meticulously wearing out her opponents with boring baseline shots—is turning more aggressive. She charges the net if only to hit a textbook overhead smash. And while she does not bellow or groan when she smacks the ball, her shots are as powerful as those of the grand-standers. She compensates for a slow girlish shuffle with her court presence—she is rarely caught out of position—and her unblinking concentration on the telltale moves of her opponent. The clowder of veteran players who used to root for anyone but prissie Chrissie now cheer her on.

When team tennis begins this spring, Chris plans to move into an apartment in Phoenix, where she will play for the Racquets. But no doubt she will return frequently to the family nest for advice and encouragement. “There’s nothing like a good heart-to-heart with Mom,” she says. “Of course, my dad is still the only agent I have. We may have lost a few dollars along the way, but I’m still my own person.”

It was from her father, Jimmy Evert, still teaching at the public courts in Ft. Lauderdale, that she learned the game. He was once a touring pro himself. “He always emphasized that a tennis career should be part of my life, not all of it,” Chris says. “Right now I know he’d be a lot happier if I was married with a couple of babies. And I must admit that in the long run children are far more important than my game.

“But right now, I’m going through a very exciting period of my life. For the first time nothing is planned. I’m doing things on my own, I’m growing up, I’m letting things happen to me. I can’t wait to see how I turn out.”

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