1971: Chris Evert reaches U.S. Open semis at 16, becomes national sensation

by: Steve Tignor | March 05, 2015

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Silent but deadly, the teenage Evert rode her two-handed backhand all the way to the final four at Forest Hills. (AP Photos)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.


In 1975, the New York Times ran an article entitled “If Bruce Springsteen Didn’t Exist, Rock Critics Would Have Had to Make Him Up.” The phrase may not have been easy to say, but the message wasn’t hard to understand: As a musical savior, the Boss was almost too good to be true.

Four years earlier at Forest Hills, something similar could have been penned by a sportswriter: “If Chris Evert Didn’t Exist, Tennis Would Have Had to Make Her Up.” That title was never used, to my knowledge, but it would have been a fitting description for what Chrissie—“the poker-faced 16-year-old ingenue with a two-fisted backhand and nothing to lose,” in the words of Sports Illustrated—did for the game, and in particular the American game, at the 1971 U.S. Open.

By the time Evert walked into the old concrete horseshoe stadium at the West Side Tennis Club—in her seven years at the event, she would never play anywhere else—the distant sound of a tennis boom had been heard across the U.S. for the better part of a decade. Through the affluent 60s, recreational interest had spread beyond the sport’s traditional club walls, and with the onset of the Open era in 1968, spectator interest began to catch up.

New fans tuned into see old legends like Rod Laver, who generated mass interest with his Grand Slam run in ’69, and Pancho Gonzalez, who proved to be a must-see star even into his 40s. But none of the game’s greatest players could match the appeal of the little blond teen with the big backhand, who was taking two weeks off from Ft. Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School. When the world watched “Chris America” coolly reduce her older opponents to tears on her way to the semifinals, usually with a dramatic comeback thrown in for good measure, the boom was on. SI summed her performance up this way: ‘She seldom showed emotion and she looked so young. The crowd went wild.”

In rain-soaked New York, Chrissie was a flash of late-summer lightning; or, as Bud Collins put it, she “swooshed into the Forest Hills stadium like a Florida hurricane.” But while she was just 16 and little more than a rookie, Evert wasn’t exactly a nobody. She came into the event having won 25 straight matches. And with several top players sidelined—Margaret Court was pregnant and couldn’t play; Virginia Wade was injured; Evonne Goolagong hadn’t made the trip from Australia—she wasn’t that much of a long shot, either.

Evert began with a win over Edda Buding—“I was petrified,” Evert said, but she didn’t look it, as she left the German with eyes less than dry. But Chrissie didn’t take hold as a phenomenon until her second-round win over Mary Ann Eisel, which was broadcast on CBS. Evert’s winning scores were 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, but they hardly tell the whole story of that match. The legend of “The Little Ice Woman” was born when she held off six match points with Eisel serving at 6-5 in the second set. You can hear that legend being born in the voice of Collins in the clip below; when Evert puts a backhand pass in the corner to break serve for 6-6, he yells, “Chrissie GOES FOR THE CORNER AND GETS IT.”

“Lady Poker Face’s” reputation for unflappability only grew with her next two matches, in which she came back from a set down both times to knock off two veterans, François Durr and Lesley Hunt, and reach the semis. By then, the Forest Hills crowds had created a home-team atmosphere whenever she entered the main stadium. Evert not only won, she won with an original style, one that would be highly influential. Her two-handed backhand, rarely seen at the time, would become the standard from that side.

By the end of the 70s, the WTA was teeming with “Chris Clones,” and today only a handful of women in the current Top 100 don’t use two hands on their backhands. Even now, every August, U.S. Open crowds yearn for another breakout run by an American teen. Melanie Oudin, Vicky Duval, CiCi Bellis: They were all echoes of Chrissie in ’71, but so far their lightning hasn't outlasted the summer.

“People would have torn down the fences if I tried to put her on any other court,” said Bill Talbert, the U.S. Open tournament director in the 70s. “Everybody wants to see Chrissie.”

But what delighted the audience in ’71 began to irritate her fellow players. They complained about the partisan crowd noise and her “kid’s concentration” that kept her so focused. It was left to the most famous of those older players, top-seeded Billie Jean King, to end Evert’s charmed run in the semis in straight sets. But that wasn’t before Billie Jean, who knew a star when she saw one, defended her.

“Chris has really helped women’s tennis,” King said at the Open that year. “What it needs is more personalities. If any of the other girls feel jealous about the attention she’s received, they should stop and think beyond their own little worlds.”

Evert was the Springsteen of the women’s tour; Billie Jean couldn’t have invented a player with more mainstream appeal. Part of her appeal—to the media if not the fans—may have been the way she looked. “Like many a New York production,” Roy Blount, Jr. wrote about the ’71 Open, “the show was saved by a skirt.”

But another, bigger part of Evert’s appeal was the way she won, and you could see it in that second-round match with Mary Ann Eisel. It was Evert's cucumber-cool comeback, not her blond ponytail, that first brought the New York crowds around to her. Evert was never fond of her many chilly nicknames; she was known as “Ice Woman,” “Ice Maiden,” “Ice Princess” “Little Miss Icicle,” and, in Italy, “Signorina Macchinetta”—the Little Machine. But they do give us an idea of what she was really known for, and what King must have suspected from the beginning. Chrissie drew fans to the sport by showing them what a great tennis player looked like.

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