Tennis legend and Rolex testimonee Chris Evert on her unrivalled mental fortitude, the future stars of tennis and why the days of single-player dominance are over.

SINGAPORE (Dec 10): I’m sitting in the players’ lounge at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals 2018 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Martina Navratilova walks in, looks straight at me and smiles. My mind freezes, awestruck by the presence of the legend. Did the seven-time world No 1 and one of the biggest names in the history of women’s tennis just notice and acknowledge me?

I force myself to snap back to the task at hand. I’m awaiting the arrival of another tennis icon of equal eminence and need to bring my A-game.

Chris Evert floats in, exuding complete class and elegance in a sleeveless red dress accentuated by well-defined arms any woman of 64 would envy.

The Rolex ambassador and I sit down to chat. We begin by diving into what made her one of the greatest female tennis players of all time.

“I was very hungry to do well and had a passion for it right from the beginning. My strengths were more mental than physical: my focus, mental toughness and the ability to play every point like it was matchpoint,” recalls the 1.68m former athlete.

Evert dominated the sport from the mid-1970s to the 1980s with a career winning percentage in singles matches of 89.97%, the highest in the history of Open Era tennis — for men or women. Her reign on clay courts, though, reached an astounding 94.55% career winning percentage in singles matches — earning her the nickname “Queen of Clay”, and remaining a WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) record to this day.

“I was brought up on clay courts. And I think what you’re brought up on will form the type of player you become. If you’re brought up on grass courts, you’re going to be a grass court player. If you’re brought up on slower courts, you’re going to have better ground strokes,” she notes.

Clay courts slow down the ball and produce a high bounce in comparison to grass or hard courts, removing many of the advantages of big serves, which makes it difficult for serve-based players to dominate on them.

“It gave me more time, and I learnt from the young age of eight or nine that I had the ability to be more patient than my opponent, and that I could force them into errors. On clay, it’s a lot of long rounds and it’s hard to put away balls. So, I used that to my advantage,” Evert explains.

Her string of unbroken records includes reaching 34 Grand Slam singles finals — more than any other player in the history of professional tennis — and winning 18 such championships. She also holds the record of most consecutive years (13) to win at least one Grand Slam title, including a record seven championships at the French Open and sharing the record for six championships at the US Open with fellow American Serena Williams.

Strengths and weaknesses
“I realised that my strength wasn’t to blow somebody off the court. My strength was to stay in there and be steady, place the ball well, use variety, drop shots. You’ve got to know your strengths and weaknesses and keep working on them, and this translates into life and business,” she observes.

As Evert continues on about the art of conquering her mind game, I become increasingly conscious of my own concentration wavering. Because over her shoulder, I am watching one of the most extraordinarily surreal moments of my life unfold before my very eyes, as the legendary Navratilova is just casually lying down on the next sofa, her lanky 1.73m frame draped right across the couch, with legs hanging over the edge.

Thankfully, I quickly catch myself and parlay this weak link to the next topic of conversation: their notorious on-court rivalry back in the day. I ask if any animosity persists and Evert assures me they are very good friends now.

“I don’t hate her anymore. There’s no competitiveness and we know each other so well. When you’re in the locker room on that final day [of competition] and one of you wins and the other loses, you really discover the character of somebody. And I think we recognise that we both have pretty good characters,” she shares.

On Evert’s part, a lot of that character-building had to do with her father also being her coach.

Jimmy Evert was a professional tennis coach and under his tutelage, all the Evert children enjoyed successful professional or college careers in the sport. Chris and younger sister Jeanne became professional players while brothers John and Drew as well as youngest sister Clare played tennis on scholarship at their respective universities.

Chris was the only one to achieve such a spectacular level of success and credits her parents for keeping her grounded.

“I was lucky because I had great parents. I’d win Wimbledon at 19 and I’d go home and still have chores to do. I’d still have to fold the laundry, empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage. They kept my feet on the ground,” she remembers.

On dealing with the immense pressure that came with the fame and success at such a young age, she says: “I didn’t get carried away with myself and success because I knew it could end right there; it could leave me in a second. So, I appreciated it so much that I just took it in stride. And I think that enabled me to have that longevity.”

Evert’s advice to the up-and-coming players of today, therefore, is to pace themselves. “And to manage their energies, manage themselves on and off the court, and to just enjoy it because you only have ‘x’ number of years in this career.”

I’m curious as to how different Evert herself was on and off the court in her day. “That’s a good question,” she ponders. “Not that different”, she eventually decides. “I wasn’t the flamboyant, colourful kind of pioneer like Billie Jean [King] and I wasn’t as outspoken as Martina. I was more of an observer, not a reactor. I would really think before I spoke and I think I played that way: intelligently, consistently, without a lot of highs and lows.”

This segues nicely into my next question: What does she make of the inconsistent performance young players are prone to?

Champion material
Our interview is taking place two days before the championship match and Naomi Osaka’s WTA Finals debut had just come to a disappointing end as she had to forfeit the match with Kiki Bertens due to a hamstring injury — after already having lost three-set matches to Sloane Stephens and Angelique Kerber.

Going into this tournament, Osaka’s was hands-down the most exciting name on the roster following her stunning victory over Serena Williams at the US Open just a month earlier.

Regardless, Evert still thinks Osaka is the name to watch out for in the cluster of emerging stars.

Lowering her voice to an almost inaudible range as a few of the current players are also in the room and within earshot, Evert says: “Naomi — she’s 21 and still maturing; she’s only going to get better. She’s got a lot of power; her power matches Serena’s power and I think she’s hungry for success. Kiki Bertens was nowhere this time last year, but she’s made great strides in the past year. So I would look at these two. But I think Osaka.”

The days of single-player dominance, however, are over. “Because on a good day, they all could win,” Evert believes.

“Look at the [recent] Grand Slams — we’ve had eight different Grand Slam winners. That means there’s a lot of depth and surprises. There are so many great players that I think it’s going to be hard for anybody to dominate and I don’t know if we’re ever going to see those days of domination again. It’ll take someone really special… Maybe every 20 years, somebody really special will come along and dominate for a few years, but right now, even in this tournament, I have no idea who’s going to win.”

Life after tennis
With a professional tennis coach for a father, one cannot help but wonder if a career outside of tennis was ever an option for Evert.

“If my dad wasn’t a teaching pro, I wouldn’t have been in tennis,” she says matter-of-factly. She would have been a social worker instead.

“I had romantic ideas of flying to Africa and other countries and helping kids. Or perhaps be a teacher of some kind, or a psychologist,” she says in retrospect.

These days, Evert channels that desire to help others through her heavy involvement in charity work centred around the prevention of drug abuse and assistance for the children of addicts.

Her organisation, Chris Evert Charities, has helped raise over US$24 million since its inception in 1989, when she retired from the courts.

“At this stage of my life, it’s about giving rather than taking,” she explains. She describes her life as having been lived in three parts: “The first was tennis, the second was being a mum and raising three kids, and the third is about finding peace within yourself and then giving and helping people because I’ve led a really privileged life.”

Evert’s third act also includes her role as an icon to inspire the next generation of athletes and tennis superstars — as a commentator on ESPN and ambassador for Rolex for the past six years.

Of the Rolex partnership, she says: “I love the way they really value former champions as ambassadors, from Jackie Stewart to Arnold Palmer, as well as current champions.”

“They’re a class act — timeless and beautiful,” she continues. Virtues that could also be used to describe Chris Evert, I suggest. Hesitant to embrace the compliment, she adds two more adjectives: “Durable and efficient. I don’t want to compliment myself too much, but I can compliment the watch.”

Quick to compliment the watch she is, as she offers me a glimpse of the sizeable gold timepiece sitting on her dainty wrist. Evert was wearing the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona in 18ct Everose gold — a timepiece she says was a gift to herself.

“I like big dials. I’ve always liked guys’ watches. One piece of big jewellery is better than six pieces of small jewellery for me,” she declares.

No diamonds on the bezel either, please. “I’m not into flash. I prefer subtle class,” says the owner of five Rolexes collected over the past three decades.

It has been such a privilege to delve into the mind of one of the world’s greatest athletes of all time. Achievements, accolades and statistics aside, I conclude our time together by asking if there’s something she could share about Chris Evert that nobody really knows.

“I tell a good dirty joke,” she says with a cheeky smile.

But ever the class act, she politely declines to share one.

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful