Commentary

Evert: The family business

An excerpt from the ESPN Book "Father and Daughters and Sports."

Updated: June 17, 2010, 12:15 PM ET
By Chris Evert with Jon Levey

Chris EvertSteve Powell/Getty ImagesChris Evert's championship-winning mentality was fostered on the Florida courts by her father.

When I was five years old, I was on a popular children's program in South Florida called "The Skipper Chuck Show." The small studio audience was all kids, and there was a segment in which Skipper Chuck would ask them questions. It just so happened that on my lone appearance, the Skip put a microphone in front of me and asked my name and what my dad did for a living. I had no hesitation telling him my name was Chris Evert. I pulled up short, however, before revealing my father's occupation. My dad was a tennis coach, and fifty years ago nobody's dad was a tennis coach. Childhood insecurity and embarrassment got the better of me, and I gave my dad what I felt was a more reputable line of work.

"He's a painter," I said.

Obviously my attraction to tennis -- and my respect for those who teach the game -- was not immediate. In fact, early on I was resentful at being forced into playing. When I was in kindergarten, each day after school I would go to my best friend's house to swim and eat barbecue for dinner. Nothing in life could compare. It was about that time my father decided he was going to teach me how to play tennis. Instead of going to my friend's house, he took me to the tennis facility in Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, where he was the head pro. We'd go onto the court with a shopping cart full of balls and he'd toss them to me endlessly, drilling into me the fundamentals. In terms of fun, it was nothing to write home about -- certainly not on a par with a swim in a pool and a grilled burger.

But tennis was in Jimmy Evert's blood. A child of the Great Depression, my dad was exposed to the sport as a ball boy for Bill Tilden. He honed his skills on courts made of wooden boards in his native Chicago. He received a tennis scholarship to Notre Dame, where he was captain and played No. 1 singles. After graduating, he had some success on the men's tour, winning the Canadian Open and the U.S. Indoors. But after serving in the Navy, my dad wanted a steady income and decided that, rather than competing, he would teach tennis. His first job was at a club in New Rochelle, New York, where he met my mom, Colette. Before long, he was spending winters down in Florida, teaching at Holiday Park. Soon it became their permanent home.

While some tennis pros are reluctant to coach their kids, my dad never hesitated to teach his children the game. He started all five of us when each was six years old, and all five took to the sport and made it a significant part of our lives. A major reason for that was the atmosphere my dad created at Holiday Park. Before Nick Bollettieri opened his academy farther north, Holiday Park was the mecca of tennis in Florida. One year we had more than ten players training there to compete at Wimbledon. Future Top 10 men's players Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon were regulars and took lessons from my dad. Many years later, Jennifer Capriati would too. Best of all, Holiday Park was a public facility.

There were dozens of talented players my age there, which afforded me tough competition and a social life. When I woke in the morning, I couldn't wait to hit the courts -- to work on my game, of course, but also to clown with my friends and family. I remember one summer, we painted lines on a patch of grass and tied a net around two trees to construct our own grass court. Perhaps I didn't have a choice whether or not to play tennis, but it did turn out to be an idyllic childhood.

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Steve Powell/Getty ImagesChris Evert won 18 Grand Slam singles titles in her career, including this French Open crown.

That's not to say my dad was a soft coach; his tireless work ethic set such an example. Each day he was on the court for nearly twelve hours without a break. He and I spent countless hours on the clay courts perfecting my footwork, strokes, and patience. I was small and not the type of player who was going to pile up winners, so my dad built my game around minimizing errors. The idea was that my opponents would falter before I would. It called for endless drilling and repetition, which was tough on me because I didn't always love to practice. Most players -- even those known for their icy demeanors, like Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer -- were emotional on the court as juniors. I was no different. I threw and broke my share of rackets. But my dad taught me something that became instrumental to my success: how to bottle my emotions during a match and never give my opponents an indication of how I was feeling. Even if I was losing or felt exhausted, I shouldn't show it. Playing with a poker face would frustrate my opponents into making mistakes. Consequently, that was the way I conducted my career.

It proved to be a genius tactic. I always felt confident that if a match was close, I would have the mental edge. It was probably my greatest strength. Would I have preferred to play with more emotion? Sure. Giving full effort and winning are always appreciated, but I think fans relate more easily to athletes who wear their hearts on their sleeves. It wasn't that my father didn't want me to play in an engaging style. I doubt the concept of showmanship even entered his mind. He just did what a good coach is supposed to: He gave me the best possible chance to win.

And he never once got mad when I lost a match; he never yelled or put pressure on me to excel. As long as I tried my best, my dad was satisfied. He wasn't driven to nurture a Grand Slam champion or fulfill his own career dreams. When I was in eighth grade, I was competing in tournaments two weekends a month and doing quite well. At the same time, I wanted to feel like just another one of the girls at school. So without really thinking about it, I tried out and made the boys' basketball cheerleading squad. It would have been a significant time commitment that interfered with tennis. My dad told me I had a decision to make. He wasn't going to give me his full support and spend all his free time with me on the tennis court if what I wanted was to become a cheerleader. I thought about it, and in the end it was a fairly obvious choice to make. Still, that was a defining moment for me, because I realized I would have to make sacrifices in order to reach my potential. And I have always respected my dad for allowing me to come to that conclusion on my own.

Inevitably, though, there were times when he blurred the line between coach and father. At night, after we had spent the entire day on the court, he would occasionally still have tennis on the brain. He'd want to discuss a stroke I was trying to refine or the match from earlier that day. I was in my early teens, and I needed more emotional and less athletic support from him. I needed him to tell me I looked pretty that day or to say he was proud of me.

"Oh, Chrissie, he never had sisters," my mom would say, trying to defend my dad's lack of sensitivity.

His was a generation of tight lips -- compliments weren't handed out liberally. My drive to succeed in tennis was probably partly due to a desire to get praise from my dad. When I entered my late teens and had been on tour for a few years, we made more of an effort to address our relationship. I needed him to be more of a dad, and he was fully supportive of my getting a traveling coach to lessen his role. That took the pressure off him and allowed him to enjoy just being a parent. When I was on the road, I would call home every night and I would talk with him about whatever tournament I was playing in. His was the voice I wanted to hear after I suffered a tough loss -- he always found a way to soothe me and point out the positives.

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Mike Powell/Getty ImagesJimmy Evert helped make his daughter a champion.

Over the course of my career, we did most of our communicating over the phone. He didn't go to many pro tournaments because he has a hard time being in large crowds and can suffer from agoraphobia. He was there for only one of my U.S. Open titles and never saw me win Wimbledon or the French Open. Of course, I wanted him to be there, but overall his absence didn't bother me too much. He got anxious in those types of situations, and it would have worried me knowing he was uncomfortable.

That's why my mom was the perfect complement. Besides being an extrovert and a born traveler, she served as the equalizer between us. My dad frowned on dates and thought that going out late on weekends would hurt my game. My mom believed all work and no play made for an unhappy person. She made sure all my brothers and sisters had balance in their lives. Yet she was devoted to our tennis as much as my father was, taking us all over Florida to play in different tournaments. My parents gave up their weekends and never went on a vacation. A favorite family trip was when we all piled into the family station wagon, complete with a bed in the back, and headed to the USTA National Open (for girls under twelve) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In a sport that's notorious for bringing out the worst in parents, I couldn't have been luckier.

Thanks to our dad's passion, tennis was truly a family pastime. All the Evert kids won a national junior tournament at some point. My younger sister, Jeanne, went pro as I did and made it into the Top 20 early on in her career. My other siblings all got college scholarships and played No. 1 singles for their schools. To this day, my dad says he's just as proud of them as he is of me. They worked hard, too, and he's thrilled he never had to pay a dime for college.

His beneficiaries aren't all named Evert either. It would be impossible to count the number of players who spent time on my father's court. Whether they were looking for a college scholarship or a reliable backhand volley, my dad was there to see they achieved their goals. After he retired in 1997, the tennis facility at Holiday Park was renamed the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center. It was a great honor for him but completely deserved. No one has had a bigger impact on the success and popularity of tennis in Southern Florida than my dad. He certainly made all the difference in my career.

Not bad for a painter.

Chris Evert was ranked No. 1 in the world for 260 weeks and won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. She currently runs a tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida, where she lives with her three sons, Alex, Nicky and Colton.

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