Roland Garros ruminations: Chris Evert, all-time women's champion

Roland Garros ruminations: Chris Evert, all-time women's champion

Despite that difficulty for Evert at the end of her career on clay, the fact remains that her record on that surface is unassailable. It is fitting that she claimed both her first and last Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros.

The red clay courts of Roland Garros were, in a multitude of ways, made to order for Chris Evert. In 13 appearances between 1973 and 1988, she won a record seven women’s singles titles, captured 72 of 78 matches for a remarkable winning percentage of .923, and established herself as the ultimate match player, strategist and tactician on a surface that suited her to the hilt.

She was supremely purposeful with every shot, unwaveringly imperturbable under duress, as clear-minded a champion as the game has yet witnessed. Her impeccable footwork, racquet preparation, court sense and steely resolve were unparalleled.

Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, the French Open would be in full swing right now. That is why this is an ideal time to hear from a player widely revered as the greatest female clay-court player in the history. I spoke with Evert by telephone last week, and invited her to take us through the many Roland Garros triumphs she celebrated, along with revisiting a few hard times along her journey.

In her 1973 Roland Garros debut as an 18-year-old, the Floridian confronted world No. 1 Margaret Court in an absorbing duel. It was Evert’s first Grand Slam final and she came exceedingly close to winning it, taking the first set and building a 5-3 second-set lead. But very uncharacteristically, she made four unforced errors when she served for the match and Court triumphed, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4.

“I got tight as a drum,” Evert recalls. “I wasn’t ready to handle that moment emotionally. Margaret held her nerve better than I did. But I was not devastated. I realized I had the match but didn't have the intensity to finish it. I shrugged it off and saw that first Grand Slam final as a stepping stone.”

Evert would not lose again on that Parisian stage for a long time. She returned in 1974, which was the first year of World TeamTennis. Many of the game's leading players, including Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong, were not permitted to play in Paris because they were WTT participants, but Evert was always going to be the prohibitive favorite. She swept through the field without losing a set, eclipsing the wily Julie Heldman and Helga Masthoff before routing Olga Morozova, 6-1, 6-2, to collect her first major crown.

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Evert and Morozova were doubles partners and they took the title together that year. But in singles on that surface, the American felt entirely comfortable against a player who was vulnerable from the backcourt.

“I basically knew walking out on the court with Olga that I had already won the match,” says Evert. “We had fun playing doubles, but playing her in the singles I knew she preferred to serve-and-volley, so if I kept her pinned to the baseline with my consistency and placement I felt I would win. I had racked up so many wins on clay that I was really confident there was nobody I was going to lose to.”

Evert finished that season at No. 1 in the world for the first time after stopping Morozova again in the Wimbledon final. She returned to Roland Garros in 1975 as the heavy favorite again, and once more she met her doubles partner in the singles final. This time it was Martina Navratilova on the other side of the net, who had burst into the Top 5 in the world at 18, and was seeded second. Evert, the top seed, prevailed 2-6, 6-2, 6-1.

“In those days, Martina was hot and cold,” Evert remarks. “She already had the ability to serve me off the court on the backhand side and come into the net behind her sliced backhand. She came out with guns blazing and played a great first set. But I was notorious for starting slow.”

Had Evert been in the field at Roland Garros in the three-year span from 1976-78, she would undoubtedly have concluded her career with 21 rather than 18 singles majors in her collection. But she elected to join other top players like Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade and Goolagong in World TeamTennis over those years while the somewhat devalued Roland Garros titles were taken by Sue Barker, Mima Jausovec and Virginia Ruzici.

Evert does not regret her decision to play WTT.

“I won Wimbledon in 1976 in singles and doubles and Tony Roche coached me,” she says. “It was the right move to play World TeamTennis. We brought the masses in, playing in arenas with 8,000 to 10,000 people every night. It was exciting. We helped grow the sport.

“I don’t put as much value in Grand Slam tournaments as some do because there are other things that are just as important. I learned a lot about life playing World TeamTennis, traveling and being on a team with other people.”

Underrated Traits of the Greats—Chris Evert's athleticism:

When she returned to Roland Garros in 1979, Evert had recently lost in a third set tie-break to Tracy Austin in the Rome semifinal, which ended her astounding 125-match clay-court winning streak that had started in the summer of 1973. But 16-year-old Austin did not play Roland Garros. Evert dropped one set in the round of 16 against Argentina’s industrious Ivanna Madruga, but no one else pushed her. In the final, she crushed Australian Wendy Turnbull, 6-2, 6-0. 

“Wendy was a great athlete and very quick,” Evert remembers. “She also had a good serve and had some weapons, but the clay defused it. I felt confident I was going to win.”

The following year, Evert was taken to three sets by Bettina Bunge and Hana Mandlikova before taking apart Ruzici, 6-0, 6-3, in the final. Ruzici had an explosive forehand but Evert peppered the Rumanian’s backhand to easily garner her fourth title.

Mandlikova upended Evert, 7-5, 6-4, in the 1981 semifinals. Evert had won 32 consecutive matches to start that season, but Mandlikova was in the zone. The next year, young American Andrea Jaeger halted Evert, 6-3, 6-1, by throwing in a barrage of moon-balls mixed with clever changes of pace.

Losing in consecutive years made Evert more motivated to garner a fifth French Open crown in 1983, and she did just that. Prior to the final, she was stretched into three-setters by both Helena Sukova and Mandlikova before comfortably ousting Jaeger, and then outmaneuvering Jausovec, 6-1, 6-2, for the trophy. Jausovec had beated Kathleen Horvath after the American had stunned Navratilova in the round of 16; it was Martina’s lone loss in a year when she went 86-1.

After losing, 6-3, 6-1, to Navratilova in the 1984 final—Martina was never better on clay—Evert turned the tables on her formidable rival in the 1985 and 1986 Roland Garros finals, claiming her last two major titles in the process. Coming into the 1985 season, she had lost to Navratilova 13 times in a row, including three major finals in 1984.

By the time the two superstars collided in Paris on June 8,1985, Navratilova had defeated Evert in 15 of their previous 16 meetings. But Evert came through, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5, in their most memorable confrontation. Evert was ahead 4-2 in the second set and had 3-1 and 5-3 leads in the third before ultimately succeeding in front of an enraptured French audience.

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“When I was down 0-40 at 5-5 in the third set,” Evert reflects, “I got to 30-40 and we had kind of a fluky point that I won at the net. When I got behind in that game I thought to myself, ‘I have come all this way but I am going to lose this match.’ But once I got out of trouble and was back to deuce, I thought I could win again.

“I kept trying to make myself believe I would win the match. It wasn’t a great match in terms of consistency and shotmaking, but it was fascinating because of the seesaw nature of it. I did not have my normal tunnel vision where I would block everything out.

“I opened up my senses and was aware of the crowd’s response to our tennis. I didn’t lose focus but I allowed myself to enjoy the suspense of the match and the excitement it was bringing to the fans. It was the happiest I have ever felt after winning a Grand Slam tournament. I think it was meant to be.”

The long losing streak against Navratilova had been debilitating.

“Everybody had been counting me out,” Evert recalls. “Mary Carillo said, ‘I just don’t think Chris Evert is ever going to win another Grand Slam event.’ A lot of people felt the way she did. I just kept on fighting. Martina had been dominating women’s tennis and beating me the last three years. So that win was really special. I put it in the same category as beating Tracy Austin in the semifinals of the 1980 US Open after losing five times in a row to her.

“Somebody drums you, and you get to a point where you just don’t have an answer. I finally figured out how to beat Tracy and then I had the realization in Paris that I could beat Martina. Both of those victories propelled me for another few years. And then ironically I beat Martina again in the 1986 French Open final.”

In that one, Evert rallied gamely to win, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, sweeping the last four games from 2-3 in the third with perhaps the most inspired tennis of her career.

“I was surprised I could repeat a win like that over Martina, doing it two years in a row in the finals of a Grand Slam,” she says. “The quality was much better in ’86. It was a much cleaner match. Winning like that made me realize I still had it.”

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Undoubtedly, Evert was exhilarated when she took that title—her last at a major, extending her astonishing record streak to 13 years in a row of winning at least one major. But the clay-court landscape was changing. A new wave of players was emerging. Gabriela Sabatini gave Evert a stern test in 1986 in Paris, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario—who would eventually win three French Opens between 1989 and 1998—toppled Evert in the third round, her last Roland Garros appearance. Their heavy topspin bounding up high was exasperating for Evert. She was forced into hitting too many balls from up above her shoulders.

“It’s true about the new wave of players back then,” she muses. “Sabatini for me was the worst kind of player for me to face. She had such heavy topspin that every ball was up so high. That was not my power point. She had me pinned eight feet behind the baseline with those shots. The same with Arantxa. Clay-court tennis was getting tougher and tougher for me.”

It was such an ordeal that she chose to skip the 1989 French Open.

“I played a warmup tournament in Geneva and lost to a good Top 20 player named Barbara Paulus in the second round,” she says. “All she did was push and hit high balls. I didn’t leave the locker room afterwards for about three hours. That was a profound moment for me. I was depressed that my game was not effective anymore on clay against players like that. So I did not play the French Open and just trained for Wimbledon, where I lost to Graf in the semis. I played my last major at the US Open and lost to Zina Garrison in the quarters after beating Monica Seles.”

Despite that difficulty for Evert at the end of her career on clay, the fact remains that her record on that surface is unassailable. It is fitting that she claimed both her first and last Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros.

“Martina won her first and last majors at Wimbledon and for me it was the French Open with the bookends,” she says. “I grew up on clay, and loved to play on it. It is apropos. I guess it was supposed to be that way for me to win my last major title at the French Open.”