Years played: 1971–1989
Major titles: 18*
If tennis players are measured by the number of nicknames they accrue, Chris Evert would face no challengers. Little Miss Poker Face, Chris America and the Little Ice Woman were just three of the many that she had inspired by the time she finished making her sport-changing debut as a 16-year-old at the 1971 US Open.
When this hooky-playing junior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale walked into the old horseshoe stadium at Forest Hills—she would never play on any other court there—the distant sound of a tennis boom could be heard in the United States. But none of the male legends—Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall—who had returned at the start of the Open era were a match for the appeal of the blond teen with the big backhand. Standing-room-only crowds wedged in to see Chrissie coolly reduce her opponents to tears on her way to the semifinals. “She seldom showed emotion and she looked so young. The crowd went wild,” was how Sports Illustrated summed up her performance.
That’s pretty much how it went for the rest of Evert’s 18-year career. She would remain the most popular player of her era, even as she continued to coolly cut down her opponents—1,309 of them, against just 146 defeats, by the time she retired in 1989. The fact that she reached the semifinals in her debut was a harbinger of an even more incredible mark: Evert would go on to make the semis or better at her first 34 Grand Slam events, a streak that stretched until 1983. Clearly, beneath the ponytail and the placid exterior lurked the heart of a born competitor.
Evert brought an unprecedented consistency to tennis—in her even-keel emotions; in her measured, metronomic swings; in her ability to outlast her opponents in rallies; and in her results. She would reach the semifinals or better at 52 of the 56 majors she played, win at least one Slam for 13 straight years, win 125 straight matches on clay, and remain in the Top 3 for 17 straight years—all records that are unlikely to be broken anytime soon. Her 18 major titles and 260 weeks at No. 1 put her fourth on both lists.
Yet for all of Evert’s steadiness, she was also an innovator. Trained by her father, Jimmy, a teaching pro, on green-clay courts in Ft. Lauderdale, she eschewed the standard serve-and-volley style of the day and won from the baseline. She could do that in part because she also eschewed the one-handed backhand, which had always been the standard, for a more stable and powerful two-hander. Once Evert proved it could work, the two-hander became the new standard. Evert was also more than a wallboard; her passing shots were pinpoint, and her drop shot was among the deadliest ever.
Evert dominated the WTA in the latter half of the 1970s, but when she was surpassed by her friend and rival Martina Navratilova in the early 1980s, she didn’t fade away or pull the ripcord, the way Bjorn Borg did on the men’s side. Evert upgraded to a mid-size racquet, upgraded her power from the baseline, and turned the tables back on Navratilova in two straight French Open finals in 1985 and ’86. The crowds, as they had everywhere Evert had played for 15 years, went wild.
Defining Moment: When Evert met Tracy Austin in the 1980 US Open semifinals, she had lost to her younger and even more invulnerable döppelganger from California five straight times. Austin had ended Evert’s 125-match clay-court win streak, and, 12 months earlier, ended her four-year reign at the Open. Was she now going to replace Evert at the top of the game? Not quite. After losing the first set, Evert, who was as determined as she had ever been, won the last two 6-1, 6-1 and went on to win her fifth Open.
Watch: Chris Evert beats Tracy Austin in 1980 US Open semifinals