by Steve Flink
Photo Credit: Ed Goldman
As we head down the homestretch of April, the last three major championships of the season are not far off in the distance. Roland Garros is four weeks away. Wimbledon commences on June 21. And with time marching on faster than we can ever imagine, the U.S. Open will swiftly be upon us at the end of August. I am looking forward to the French Open and Wimbledon as I always do, and those trips to Paris and London are always among the highlights of the year on my calendar.
But lately I find myself thinking even more than usual about Flushing Meadows, because I believe it is time to make a significant change out on those grounds in New York, to honor the most successful U.S. Open player of the Open Era, to celebrate an American who performed with unparalleled consistency, unwavering determination and unshakable pride across the years. She won and lost with more equanimity than any great player I have ever seen, refused to make excuses when she lost, responded to every important victory with classy understatement. She was a sportswoman through and through. She was the quintessential competitor.
In my view, the time has clearly come for the U.S. Open to pay homage to Chris Evert for her amazing record of achievement, and her exemplary professional standards. It is time for the Open to shine the lights on her good name. In 1997, when the new stadium was built, it was suitably named after Arthur Ashe, the first U.S. Open champion in 1968 and a man who was larger than the game in so many ways. In 2006, they renamed the USTA National Tennis Center, calling it the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in recognition of that icon in the womens sports movement.
The second show court at the Open has been known as Louis Armstrong Stadium ever since the event moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows back in 1978. Armstrongs musicianship was unassailable, but it makes no sense to have a prominent tennis stadium at a major event named after a figure from another field. Lets remedy the matter once and for all. Make this the year the USTA turns that appealing arena into Chris Evert Stadium. There could be no more worthy recipient of such an honor.
Consider Everts relationship with her countrys showcase Grand Slam event. Her career essentially began and ended at the U.S. Open. She made her debut in 1971 as a 16-year-old, reaching the semifinals of her first career major, establishing herself as a prodigious big match player who thrived and even flourished under pressure. In a second round meeting with countrywoman Mary Ann Eisel on the grass courts of the fabled West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Evert was on the very brink of defeat. Eisel won the first set and was serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set .She reached triple match point at 40-0. She had a total of six match points in that game, but Evert stupendously counter-attacked her way out of that dire predicament and took the match 4-6, 7-6, 6-1.
She then battled gamely from a set down in her triumphs over Francoise Durr and Lesley Hunt on her way to a penultimate round loss against the redoubtable King. Evert had become a household name over that fortnight with her stirring run, and she would never look back. She played every Open from 1971-89— 19 in a rowand was a quarterfinalist or better in every one of those years. She went on to win the tournament three times on clay (1975-77) and then captured her nations championship three more times (1978, 1980, and 1982) in Armstrong Stadium on the hard courts. With six singles titles in all, Evert has won more U.S. Opens than any woman or man in the Open Era. Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Steffi Graf have all won the tournament five times, but Evert stands alone at the top of the ladder with her half dozen titles.
Think about it. Evert was never less than a quarterfinalist as she put herself on the line for 19 consecutive years on three surfaces in New York She was always in the hunt year after year, across two decades. In many ways, her U.S Open record mirrored her major tournament performances everywhere else. In 56 Grand Slam appearances at the majors, she got to the semifinals or better on all but four occasions, and came away with a remarkable 18 Big Four titles. Moreover, she captured at least one Grand Slam event for 13 years in a row, a mark that I am convinced will never be approached.
Although Evert won a record seven French Open championships, the fact remains that the U.S. Open was a more significant battleground for her on a number of levels. The Open holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all leading American players. For Evert, that feeling of loyalty toward her nation and the connection she has always felt to the U.S. Open is perhaps deeper than is the case for other U.S. competitors. As she told me once when reflecting on the role the U.S. Open played in shaping her career, “I wanted to end my career at the U.S. Open because it was important to me to finish full circle at my countrys championship. The U.S. Open at 16 was my coming out party so to speak, and it was the first time I was exposed not only to big-time tennis but also to the life I was going to lead, so it was only appropriate to have it be my last tournament.”
How right she was. In 1989, only four-and-a-half months before turning 35, she toppled 15-year-old Monica Seles in the round of 16 but lost to Zina Garrison in the quarterfinals. She was given a sustained, rousing standing ovation when that match concluded because the fans knew it was the last tournament match she would ever play; Evert had announced over that summer that she would make the Open her final tournament. She had very deliberately made certain that her tournament farewell was going to be in New York, and would have had it no other way.
She has been gone from the game for nearly 21 years, but Everts outstanding reputation and her integrity have not been diminished. She has established the Evert Tennis Academy in her hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, an endeavor that keeps her in tune with the game and on top of the inner workings of the sport. For a large legion of fans, the seventies and eighties do not seem that far away in the eye of the mind. They remember Evert competing honorably all through that stretch. They recollect her quiet intensity on the court, her grace under pressure, her admirable professionalism. They recall the way she made the two-handed backhand one of the essential tools of her trade. They reflect on her mastery of the backcourt game, the purposefulness of her play, and the well mannered way she unfailingly conducted herself in the public arena.
There are some other big and potent names who would be strong candidates to get the Armstrong Stadium named after them. Connors was at one time the central player in men’s tennis, and the man the fans found singularly compelling. He won his five Opens on three different surfaces, and took three of those crowns on the Armstrong Stadium. Pete Sampras won four of his five Opens on Armstrong, and was the same kind of honorable competitor as Evert. He was an authentic sportsman. And John McEnroe grew up and lives in the New York area. He won the event four times and captured all of his titles on the Armstrong Stadium Court. McEnroe gave a good deal of his heart and soul to the Open.
But the way I look at it, both Connors and McEnroe have their share of detractors. They have been loved by some unabashedly loyal observers yet strongly disliked by others who did not approve of their conduct on the court. These two dynamic left-handers evoked powerful emotions out there in the court of public opinion, but they incensed many traditionalists while simultaneously appealing widely to younger audiences. In my view, Sampras would be much worthier than either Connors or McEnroe of having Armstrong named after him. Like Evert, his career was effectively launched at the Open when he became the youngest ever (at age 19) to win the mens event in 1990, and he also played his last tournament match at the Open when he toppled Andre Agassi to secure a 14th major at the 2002 event.
And yet, to me the case is clear: Chris Evert has the best credentials of any player, male or female. She was the first player ever to capture a singles title on Armstrong Stadium when she won her fourth Open there in 1978. She regained the title on the same court in 1980 and 1982. She played her last twelve U.S. Opens when Armstrong was still the biggest stage, concluded her career at the majors on that court, and brought so many tennis admirers into her corner with her immaculate ground strokes and her supreme fighting qualities as a competitor.
Chris Evert has more than earned this honor. She is the greatest native born American woman tennis player of all time. She represented herself and her country impeccably. She is no self promoter, and is not narcissistic. She is a proud but measured champion who always downplays what she accomplished, who lives her life in the present tense, and lets her past speak for itself. She is never egotistical when she looks in the rear view mirror. Yet those who make it their business to examine the history of the sport and care deeply about these matters are fully aware of Everts permanent importance.
I urge USTA President Lucy Garvin and the board of directors to recognize the many reasons why we need a “Chris Evert Court” in time for the 2010 U.S. Open. This tribute to a magnificent champion is long overdue.
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