Colette Evert, mother to Chris, was tennis' most exemplary parent

Colette Evert, mother to Chris, was tennis' most exemplary parent

The mother of five navigated the parental waters with singular grace, extraordinary elegance and unmatched dignity.

When the news came my way that Colette Evert had passed away at 92 last Thursday, it hit me awfully hard. She was an extraordinary woman I had known well since 1972, and was the matriarch of a close-knit and strikingly accomplished family of seven, joining forces with her singularly devoted teaching pro husband Jimmy to raise five remarkable children—including their renowned daughter Chris—in Fort Lauderdale, Fla

The Everts rank right up there among the greatest tennis families of all time. All five of the kids reached at least the final of a national junior tournament. John Evert now runs the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton. Drew established himself as a successful teaching pro. Clare was a top-flight junior and perhaps the most gregarious member of the family. The late Jeanne Evert resided among the U.S. Top 10 in the 1970s.

All of the Evert kids were guided magnificently in their tennis pursuits by Jimmy Evert, a man of unimpeachable character who established himself as one of the finest teaching pros, coaches and disciplinarians ever to serve the sport. He taught for decades at the highly regarded Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, and was so revered that the city renamed the facility after him in 1997. In many ways, Jimmy Evert was every bit as much of a tennis institution as Chrissie, and he was deservedly lauded by many authorities as the anchor of the family. He was unassailable.

Yet Colette was the parent of all tennis parents in my view. That role is never easy to play, and many who have found themselves immersed in that endeavor have understandably been engulfed by their passion for their children and their insatiable need to see their kids succeed. Sitting on the sidelines and observing an offspring in the field of competition has drowned too many parents in a river of well-intended yet excessive emotions. Parental obsessions can be counter-productive and even destructive. Young players have been overwhelmed by parents asking too much of them.


The Evert family at their home in Florida in 1972. (Getty Images)

Colette navigated those parental waters with singular grace, extraordinary elegance and unmatched dignity. Over the years, I crossed paths with her in a multitude of settings, including her home; the courts at Holiday Park, Wimbledon and the US Open; pro tournaments in Florida; and in Newport, when her daughter was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995. I observed up close the commendable way she set herself apart as the mother of a player who happened to be a celebrity.

I met Colette in 1972, and by a few years later I had become a friend of the entire family. They were all outstanding individuals with inimitable traits, and Colette intermingled with everyone inside and outside the family with an everlasting social ease.

“She was so gracious, always cheering for my opponent, never a bad word for anyone,” Chrissie tells me, reflecting on her mother’s life. “She was always sweet and kind to everyone, balancing our lives to be not all tennis. Her dedication as a wife and mother was solid and unmatched. She was the definition of goodness. My mother was a saint.”

I can attest to all of those sentiments. Over the years, I sat with Colette at many of Chrissie’s matches, most notably at the US Open. And she would unfailingly applaud not only for her daughter but for those competing against Chrissie. Colette was a model of decorum.

When I sat with her at the US Open semifinals and finals in the 1970s and ’80s, for instance, she would invariably be apprehensive with so much riding on the outcomes of these contests. Between points I would try to offer encouragement because Colette had so much respect for those who stood on the other side of the net from her daughter. She wanted reassurance to calm her nerves.

At the changeovers, there was time for us to talk a bit longer and weigh in on what was going on. She would ask me, “Do you think Chrissie can pull out this set?” Or perhaps say, “She looks confident, don’t you think?”

But not once did I hear her say anything even remotely critical about other players. She knew the game very well but never saw herself as a deep student of the game or an expert like her husband. She was simply a proud parent hoping her daughter would win.

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Jimmy stayed almost entirely away from the arena through the bulk of Chrissie’s career; the tension was too much for him and his high blood pressure could rise, so he stayed home and either watched on television or waited for the phone call as soon as it was over. He did come to New York and witnessed her last two US Open triumphs, in 1980 and 1982, and he was present for the last tournament appearance of Chrissie’s career at the 1989 US Open. But Colette would be at the Open year in and year out, sometimes joined by her other children.

Across the board, from Pam Shriver to Martina Navratilova, Virginia Wade to Evonne Goolagong, Rosie Casals to Billie Jean King, the players celebrated Colette for her decency, warmth and innate class. The same could be said for the tennis community at large—they all appreciated her supreme generosity of spirit and unselfish manner.

I saw those qualities repeatedly on display across the years. Colette and Jimmy invited my wife, Frances, and me to their home a bunch of times, but most memorable was a 1985 visit. Colette cooked a sumptuous lamb dinner and served an incredible apple cake for dessert, later sending Frances that recipe. We spoke about a wide range of topics over the course of that meal, touching on the emergence of young players like Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf, and the changing face of the game.

“I guess Chrissie was lucky to come along when she did,” said Colette. “Timing is so important.”

I replied, “I don’t think it would have made much difference. Chrissie was going to be a champion in any era she played.”


Chris Evert holding her 1974 Wimbledon trophy, one of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles. (Getty Images)

Colette liked hearing that. She also enjoyed conversing about the rest of her children and how they interacted. Colette’s admiration for her husband knew no bounds. They were married in 1952 and lived a joyous life together until Jimmy  died in 2015. Colette came from a large family, growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y. as one of twelve children.

The fates decreed that she would cross paths for the first time with Jimmy in 1950. As Evert would recall nearly 40 years later, he had accepted a year-round position at Holiday Park (in Fort Lauderdale) a few years earlier but was then told sometime later by an authority figure “our budget is very low. Would you like to go north for the summer?”

Jimmy did just that, which led him to Colette Thompson. The rest was history.

As Jimmy mused in 1997, “I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had not gone to New York that summer. For it was in New York that I met Colette at a wedding. Two years later we married and then started a family.”

In the vast corridors of tennis history, that family is incomparable. Colette’s five children all made their mark, taking their success as juniors and turning it into a lifetime of triumphs. Jimmy was the driving force behind building a tennis family. He may have been the most admirable man I have met in tennis since I started following the sport 55 years ago.

Tennis Channel Academy—John Evert:

 

But, similarly, Colette stands alone in my estimation as a tennis parent nonpareil. The consistency of her character has been unparalleled among those who have raised kids in the world of tennis.

The last time I saw Colette was in 2007 at Chrissie’s Pro Celebrity Classic in Florida, an annual charity event. As she aged, her memory faded, but I will always treasure the example Colette set for us all.

In 2001, I sent Colette and Jimmy a copy of a book I had written called The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century. She replied a few weeks later with a letter which I will always cherish.

In my inscription, I said, “To Colette and Jimmy Evert, the greatest tennis parents I have ever known.”

Colette wrote back, “Jimmy joins me in thanking you so much for your book, and, in particular, your beautiful inscription to Jimmy and me inside the cover. How thoughtful and kind of you, Steve! We will always treasure those wonderful memories over those years when you and Chrissie were embarking on your tennis careers; you in your writing and her in playing the game (and us with butterflies in our stomachs and trying to look calm and placid!!!!!)”

Colette continued, “We have your book on our coffee table in our family room and we are enjoying it immensely. In fact, we have to take turns reading it. One day we almost got into a fight because we both wanted it at the same time!! We thank you again for our great gift, Steve.”

I thank Colette Evert for her contribution to my life, for enhancing the tennis landscape immeasurably, and for standing so staunchly behind her principles. She leaves behind a legacy of honor.