You can get a pretty good picture of who Jimmy Evert was from observing his daughter Chris, the clean lines of her tennis game and the unshakable correctness of her comportment on the court, the buried wit and unexpected warmth off of it. But to complete the man you have to look at who he wasn’t. He wasn’t one of those bullies striving for importance through his child, sitting unquietly in a courtside box with his mouth tight with tension, killing a young spirit with dissatisfied glances. It was Jimmy Evert’s absence from the center of things, his invisible care for his daughter that defined him.
He was buried Aug. 26 in Fort Lauderdale, where for much of 49 years he taught tennis for $10 an hour on the public courts of Holiday Park, now named for him. With him dies the original blueprint for how to create a healthy young champion, how to handle the tender bones and mind of a prodigy with restraint. He refused to pressure his daughter by ever putting her, or himself, up for sale.
“As a man he was exposed to fame, wealth and success but he remained unaffected and untouched,” Chris said in a short memoir-tribute to her father released to friends shortly after he succumbed to pneumonia Aug. 21 at the age of 91.
Jimmy was adamant about not professionalizing Chris or allowing her to play full time before she turned 18 and finished high school, and he held fast to his conviction despite huge temptations after she made her Grand Slam debut as a 16-year-old at the 1971 U.S. Open, and became an international sensation. On one occasion, a Japanese tennis promoter came to the Evert household to pitch Jimmy on a lucrative one-match exhibition. The promoter thought he could buy Jimmy off. He sat down at a table, and opened a briefcase that contained $25,000 in cash and pushed it across the table. Jimmy knew the value of a dollar – he had an economics degree from Notre Dame. In those days, the early 1970s, it was the equivalent of about $125,000 today.
“Close the briefcase,” Jimmy said quietly. “And please leave our house.”
What the promoter didn’t know was that Jimmy was so principled he refused to even accept free tickets to Wimbledon.
“That was my Dad,” Chris said. “He was the most moral, ethical, dignified person I ever knew.”
She asked him once why he started all of his five kids playing tennis. She thought he might answer, “I wanted to create the No. 1 player in the world.” Instead, he told her, “I started all of you playing so I could keep the family together.” He was a deeply engaged father, always reading to them, or taking them swimming, or shepherding them to church. At first, he brought them to work with him simply so he could spend more time with them. But he taught them all such beautiful strokes, with such equal devotion, that every single one, brothers Drew and John, sisters Jeanne and Clare, became junior champions.
He wasn’t a martinet drilling his kids. Often, with a sense of quiet amusement, he would ask some of the older guys who played regularly at Holiday Park to hit with the kids. Among them was a man named George Solomon, who went on to become legendary sports editor of The Washington Post. Little Chrissie blasted shots past Solomon until he complained to a laughing Jimmy, “Enough. Find another stooge.”
“You could not ask for a nicer man; he never changed, even as his daughter grew in stature and the town around him grew into a city,” Solomon says. “He ran Holiday Park as he did his family: with love, professionalism, style, grace and humor.”
What set Chris apart from the other Evert children was that strange, perfect attentiveness to every ball. She had such concentration and precision that she could win points without seeming to stretch or flex. Jimmy gave her a revolutionary two-handed backhand and unswerving discipline. But he also gave her the gift of simply letting her emerge. Beneath her dainty gait and technician’s mastery, he saw that there was a deep-seated urge to win that didn’t require him to drive her.
“He would not criticize me ever for losing a match,” she said. “I always tried to win for him. In a nutshell, my Dad created the ideal environment for me to compete. He gave me the space I needed and in his own quiet way brought out the best in me by not asking me to be more than myself.”
He wasn’t a perfect parent or coach – he could be overly strict, and at times his beloved wife Collette had to balance him. But he had self-command: He knew he grew too nervous and over-involved in watching Chris’s matches, so he made himself stay home.
As a result, a player of just 5-foot-6 with no major weapon other than her resolve became the No.1 player in the world for seven years, and reached 34 Grand Slam singles finals, more than any player male or female in tennis history, winning 18 of them. Among other things she was one of the healthiest champions of all time, never seriously injured, and seldom resentful of the demands of her career, thanks to his prudence.
Above all, Jimmy taught tennis as an ethic. He declined to profit off of Chris or even to raise his rates long after she was an established great, insisting on remaining an affordable public courts teacher. He seeded in his daughter the critical element of conscience. She was and is self-aware and self-confessing, alert to the extent to which she could reduce everyone around her to the status of luggage handlers.
She is not perfect in this regard, any more than her father was a perfect parent. But Jimmy was successful in teaching his daughter that remaining a good person while dealing with indecent amounts of attention and money was an act of sustained will and self-consciousness. Evert’s old friend Mary Carillo, the former player turned TV analyst, says, “Every quality we have admired in Chrissie Evert has come from her lifelong desire to live up to her father.”
There is a moment in her career that stands out as illustrative of the extent of Jimmy’s influence. It came in a closely fought 1977 Wimbledon semifinal match against Englishwoman Virginia Wade. The crowd pulled so one-sidedly for Wade that Evert played most of the match silently resentful and upset. On a crucial point, Evert raced to retrieve a shot – and threw up what appeared to be a superb lob winner. The chair umpire announced the score, awarding her the point. Evert, though furious and disheartened, turned to him, and shook her head. She hadn’t reached the ball before an almost imperceptible second bounce, she confessed. It was Wade’s point. Evert lost the match in three sets. The British writer Alistair Cooke witnessed the exchange and wrote of it, “in the money jungle of professional sports it shone like a candle.”
We can’t know what expression crossed over Jimmy Evert’s face, or what emotion crossed over his heart when Chris Evert gave that point back, because he wasn’t sitting front and center with a camera trained on him. He was off struggling with himself in privacy. But surely his reaction included the simple pride that he had taught her well, and she was her father’s daughter.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at email@example.com