It’s not every day you’ll find a tennis legend who’s just finished chemotherapy giving free lessons on a Miami public court in 95-degree heat. Then again, there aren’t many legends like Chrissie Evert.
A superstar since age 16, she was a force in women’s tennis throughout the 1970s and ’80s, winning 90% of the matches she played – more than any player in history.
But today, at age 67, with three grown sons of her own, Evert is living for passing it on.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, “What do you think when you come to this place?”
“I think: give, give, give,” Evert replied.
This place, the Ashe-Buchholz Tennis Center in Moore Park, Miami, is one of 260 National Junior Tennis and Learning Centers (or NJTLs). It’s free for the kids, and funded by the U.S. Tennis Association Foundation. The first one was started by another legend, Arthur Ashe.
Evert said, “It’s fulfilling and taking care of the whole child, not just the athletic part of the child, which I love.”
When they’re not on the courts, the kids here learn yoga, do some schoolwork, and talk about their feelings, and they end up with more than just a better backhand.
Smith asked one young player, Krystal Domond, what she learned there: “I learn how to exercise. I learn how to be nice and be kind,” she replied.
Smith asked Evert, “What is it about working with these young people that gets you?”
“Basically, I can relate to these kids, ’cause I was one of those kids growing up.”
Evert was raised on Florida’s public courts. Her dad, Jimmy Evert, was the head pro at Holiday Park in Ft. Lauderdale, and he taught all five of his kids to play tennis.
“My sister Jeanne and I were professional tennis players,” said Evert, “and the other three got college scholarships and played number one for their colleges. And so, my dad didn’t have to, you know, he didn’t have to spend a cent.”
“Jeanne went pro, but what set you apart?”
“I think the hunger that I had, I think, inside,” said Evert. “I wanted it more than anybody.”
Back at her home are the memories of that teenager, who crossed over from court star to cover girl. At age 17 she was on the cover of Newsweek, with the headline, “Tennis: The Women Take Over.”
It was just the beginning. At 19 Evert won her first two Grand Slams, surprising even her dad, who did not believe her when she called to say she’d won Wimbledon: “They didn’t televise matches [live],” she said. “They taped them, and then they played them later. So, he had no idea. So, I came off the court and went right into the sort of the office, [called him], and I said, ‘Dad, I won!'”
It was Evert’s breakthrough – not just in tennis (where she won 16 more Slam titles), but in American culture.
Though, she said, all of it came at a cost: “I do believe that there’s a price to pay. There’s a price to pay for almost everything in life.”
What do you mean by that? “I think that my fame at a young age, I really didn’t get to have the freedom to develop the authentic me at a young age. I didn’t go to college; I joined the tour right away. And you know, I think people that, again, are always told, ‘You’re the greatest,’ and patted on the back, and people can’t say no to them, you know? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a ticket in my life, because policemen have pulled me over many times and seen that I’m Chris Evert. And they go, ‘I’m such a big fan of yours, I’m gonna let you go,’
“I think when that happens years, and years, and years, and years, I think you become a little entitled and a little enabled. And I’m the first to admit that. I feel like that affected my relationships with people, and with my marriages … I think you pay a price.”
Evert has been married and divorced three times. But she’s always stayed close to her family. Five years ago, she and her sister Jeanne were running through an airport, when Chris knew something wasn’t right. “And I looked back, and Jeanne’s, like, walking and huffing and puffing,” she said. “And she’s an athlete. And I said, ‘Jeanne, what’s wrong?’ She goes, ‘I don’t know, I think that I have, like, a lung infection.'”
As soon as she got home, Jeanne saw her doctor: “She made an appointment, went in, and basically they found out that she was stage four, ovarian cancer. And she lived for two more years.”
And after the heartbreak of losing Jeanne, the family then learned she had the BRCA gene mutation, which means she had a higher risk for ovarian and breast cancer. So, Chris got tested, and found out she carried it, too.
Smith asked, “So, you decided just right away, as soon as you heard that you had the BRCA gene, ‘I’m gonna get a hysterectomy’?”
“Yeah, well, my doctor recommended it, too. It’s like, why take the chance? So, I had a total hysterectomy with everything out. And my doctors considered it a preventative surgery. Preventative, we’re fine. Then all of a sudden, five days later I get a call from my doctor and he says, ‘Chrissie, I am in shock just as much as you’re gonna be in shock, but you had cancer in your fallopian tubes and in your ovaries. So, I’m sorry, but you’re gonna have to go in for more surgery.
“So, ten days later, after I healed, I went in again for another surgery. And it was the longest, like, three or four days of my life, because it would be a matter of, I was either stage one or, like, stage three, or even stage four.”
“What were you thinking?” asked Smith.
“Tied up in knots for three days, tied up in knots. Because I knew this is a bad cancer,” Evert said. “I saw Jeanne go through it. I saw the needles and the pain and the agony that she had, the chemos and, you know, endless being in the hospital, and she was, like, 80 pounds when she passed away. It was a horrible, horrible experience for her – and to see her go through that.
“So, it was like, ‘Jeanne, you know, please help me with this.’
“And, uhm … I got a call from my doctor and he said, You’re all clear. But you have to go through chemotherapy.'”
Had she waited even three months for her surgery, Evert could have been stage four. But in May, after six chemo treatments, she was declared cancer-free.
Smith said, “In your case, your sister Jeanne essentially saved your life?”
“My sister saved my life.”
Web exclusive video – Chris Evert on the BRCA gene and cancer:
And Chris Evert is using every last minute.
Smith asked, “Do you think about legacy?”
“Because, I mean, legacy is already patting yourself on the back,” Evert replied. “I don’t think about that. I don’t think about patting myself on the back.”
“So, what drives you now?”
“I think to be a mentor, because I’ve lived such an interesting life, and I’ve acquired a lot of wisdom. And I feel like I can give that to people.”
A legend, with so much more still to give.
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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Mike Levine.