July 24, 1989 12:00 PM

She splashed across our consciousness as a 16-year-old starlet, with red ribbons around her honey-blond pigtails and two fists in firm control of her backhand.

That was 1971, when women’s tennis was moving toward equal rights, equal pay and respect. Billie Jean King, 13 years Evert’s senior, was the courageous champion of the cause, but for reasons sexist and otherwise, pixieish Chris Evert was its magazine cover girl.

“Boy, was Billie pissed off a bout that,” she says, laughing.

Meet the new Chris Evert, clever and sardonic, warm but realistic. For years she was called the Ice Maiden, the metronomic baseline player whose relentless return shots ground opponents into exhaustion. But the years have stolen a step, and now it is Evert who often struggles. This month at Wimbledon, a tournament she has won three times, she was rudely dispatched in a quick 68-minute semifinal match by eventual champion Steffi Graf, 20.

At 34, even the most graceful loser tends to look forward to a new life beyond tennis. “I always had a great killer instinct,” Evert says in the wake of her worst Wimbledon loss. “Now, instead of being hungry, it’s just, ‘When will this be over?’ ”

It will all be over soon. Perhaps this week, perhaps after a curtain call at the U.S. Open this fall, more likely when the tug of the game finally weakens at the end of this season. There will be no regrets. Evert combined determination and decorum on the court with a very human vulnerability off it. The blend made her a model for tennis aficionados, a target for tabloids. But in sum, she is one of the rare people in sports who have given new shape to their profession, and have had the class to realize that they took as well as gave.

“In high school I had a crush on the captain of the football team,” Evert says, jokingly recalling her pre-prize money days in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “He never gave me a second look. Until I made my first million.”

It was the first of many. Evert earned more than $8.5 million during her 18 years on center court, not counting endorsements. In the process she also lost that icy image. Consider a leisurely living-room conversation with Evert and her second husband, Andy Mill, 36. They met in 1986 at a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen, Colo., shortly after her amicable separation from golden-haired British tennis player John Lloyd. And they speak as if they’re inseparable.

“There’s just no substitute for this,” says Mill, a former Olympic skier, of their marriage. “I tell Chrissie, if she feels anxiety, don’t run away. Come to me.”

“It was instilled in me early to hold my emotions inside,” says Chris. “I’ve changed that as I’ve grown. I’m certainly not passive, let’s put it that way.”

But now there is also passion for more than the game. Evert isn’t raging at the darkness; she’s greeting the light of a new life. “I have a great relationship with Andy and plenty of money,” she says. “I have a calm feeling about everything. It used to be, when I would lose, I couldn’t sleep at night. Now I know that if I lose a tennis match, the sun will come up.”

After her Wimbledon loss, Evert and Mill left London for the tranquillity of their Aspen condo. “Andy is an avid fly-fisherman, and he drags me with him,” she says. “We take a picnic, and he even drags me in the water sometimes. We do a lot of hiking and biking, golfing and tennis.” They have a Florida home in Boca Raton, but, says Chris, “Aspen is the best place to be in the summer, so we keep active.”

The couple has also talked often about starting a family. “I have a few years where I can still have children, and we would definitely love to have a child,” says Chris. “But we have just been married one year. We want to be together for a year or two and get to know each other a bit better before we do that. But right after I stop playing, I think we’ll have a year spending all our time together.”

If the approaching end of the career is poignant, the lifelong ride has enriched not only Evert but those who watched her as well.

The journey began in a modest section of Fort Lauderdale, near an equally modest public recreation complex called Holiday Park. The tennis pro there was Jimmy Evert.

To appreciate Chris Evert’s father, it helps to consider the parents of teen phenoms who were pushed into physical or mental debilitation in search of quick riches. Jimmy Evert never pushed or shoved. He nudged, as any good coach might do with a prospective champion. “He was dealing with five live wires,” Chris says of her self and her four siblings. “He disciplined us but he never pressured us in tennis. He put more pressure on us to do our homework. I know that few kids in tennis do it anymore, but I think staying in high school helped me.”

So did mother Colette, Chris’s friend, counselor and traveling companion through the early years. But like every restless young climber, Chris grew up and out of that arrangement. “I love my mom and like being with her,” says Chris. “But when I graduated from high school, I told her, ‘I think I’ll go to the tournaments alone, thank you very much.’ ”

Independence had its rewards, sort of. Evert had a tabloid-gorging engagement to champ Jimmy Connors, and they both won Wimbledon singles titles in the memorable “Love Match” of 1974. Then there were the flings with Burt Reynolds and former pop singer Adam Faith, and the eight-year marriage to John Lloyd.

In between, there was some pretty impressive tennis. Evert has won every major title in the world, and a lot of minor ones. The total comes to 157 singles championships, more than any other player, male or female, in history. She looks back on it all with justifiable pride but slightly mixed feelings.

“When I was young, my feelings were cool and businesslike,” she says. “Maybe I didn’t enjoy the early wins as much as I should have.”

In calm retrospect she can enjoy them now. Recently she was asked to sort out the high moments in all the success. She emphasized those teen years when her mastery began, when she was too cool to raise a fist or throw a racket in triumph.

“When I was 15, Margaret Court had just won the Grand Slam,” Evert says. “She came to a tournament in Charlotte, and somehow I beat her. Then when I was 16, I had that terrific U.S. Open when I fought off three match points and beat Mary Ann Eisel.”

Evert is modest—or maybe she just can’t keep track of all her feats. Small wonder. She has won more than 1,000 singles matches. She owns 18 Grand Slam titles, third behind only Court and Helen Wills Moody, who played in less competitive times. In April 1985 the Women’s Sports Foundation named her Greatest Woman Athlete of the last 25 years.

The later memories, inevitably, revolve around one of the great rivalries in sports, that of Evert and Martina Navratilova. “Two of my sweetest wins,” she admits, “came in the French Open when I beat Martina at a time when she was dominating me.”

Martina, 32, and Evert have both now seen the torch wrested from them by Steffi Graf. But they passed it between them for a glorious decade, and Evert is left with some intriguing memories.

“Martina and I have had a lot of ups and downs,” she says. “The first time I ever saw her, she was 15, freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia, parading around a tournament in a bathing suit. She was just eating up America—literally. She was at McDonald’s every day.”

When Martina began gobbling up titles, Evert suddenly grew wary. “We hit it off pretty well in the beginning,” she says, “but it’s difficult to be friends when you’re competing. It was me who separated. And we had some tough years. When Martina became best friends with [basketball star] Nancy Lieberman, Nancy kept telling her, ‘Hate Chris, Hate Chris.’ I was history.”

In the last four years, however, the two stars have become close again. “We’re not best friends,” says Chris. “But we share respect and compassion. We’ve watched each other cry in a lot of locker rooms.”

Evert has grown in many other ways. Like many young heterosexuals in women’s sports, she was once put off by the gay preferences of some of the stars. “Now there’s no more judging people,” she says. “I’m much more open-minded.”

Back home, the stretching has been contagious. “I’ve seen my father grow and flourish in recent years,” says Evert. “He laughs a lot and relaxes more than he did when we were all kids. With him, it used to be cut and dried: A woman had a certain role. Now he understands that we can reach out for whatever we want.”

Chris Evert reached out for a lot over 18 wonderful summers. She got most of it, and in the end she managed to give back much more. Whenever she bows out, she will leave a legacy that will be hard to match. “Money was never the motivating factor for me,” she says. “Pride was the incentive.” And an exquisite dignity was the result.

—With additional reporting by Terry Smith in London

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