Along with so many other members of the tennis community, I held Jimmy Evert in the highest regard. He passed away at the age of 91 two weeks ago, and, to say the least, his legacy is remarkable. Evert was irrefutably among the greatest coaches and teaching professionals in the history of American tennis. His grounding as a tennis teacher came from playing the sport at a high level himself. Evert was an All-American college competitor at Notre Dame, playing No. 1 for their squads during the 1940’s. In 1947, he captured the Canadian Championship singles title. He earned a No. 11 ranking in the United States.
In 1948, he moved to Florida with his wife, Colette, and that was when he started as Fort Lauderdale’s tennis director, a post he proudly held for no fewer than 49 years. He became a fixture at Holiday Park—renamed the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center in 1997—and taught a wide range of top juniors and players who achieved prodigiously on the professional tour. Among the many distinguished pupils who came under his guidance were Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon—who both made it to the top five in the world—and 1963 U.S. Championships finalist and American Davis Cup player Frank Froehling. He ably coached the young Jennifer Capriati, and she went on to win three majors. Capriati also was ranked No. 1 in the world.
But perhaps the most gratifying part of his job was how it allowed him to groom his children on the courts, and all five of them made it at least to the final of a national junior championship in the U.S. Nothing made Jimmy Evert prouder than that. His two sons, Drew and John, were outstanding junior and college players. His youngest daughter Clare was among the leading juniors in the country. Jeanne Evert achieved a No. 9 U.S. women’s ranking in 1974. All of Jimmy Evert’s kids were winners on the tennis court and beneficiaries of his sound teaching techniques, but none more so than Chrissie Evert.
She succeeded beyond her father’s wildest dreams, collecting 18 major singles titles, including seven French Opens, six at her native U.S. Open, three Wimbledon singles titles and two at the Australian Open. She won at least one Grand Slam singles titles for 13 consecutive years, a record no male or female player has matched. She concluded seven seasons as the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world from 1974-81, and was victorious in 90% of her career matches, a standard of consistency no one in the modern era has ever replicated. Evert celebrated her first big win over Margaret Smith Court at Charlotte, North Carolina in 1970 when she was 15, and had her last important victory over Monica Seles at the 1989 U.S. Open when she was less than four months away from turning 35.
Through it all, Jimmy Evert handled his role as a parent and coach in exemplary fashion, as only a gentleman could, with a sense of perspective and even-handedness, without making any of his kids feel guilty about losing. He asked only that they put forth an honest effort; if they did that, it was good enough for him. As Chrissie Evert recalls, “He never put pressure on me or any of my siblings. All he asked was that we try our hardest. Not once did he get mad at us for losing as long as we tried hard. The role of parent/coach is tricky and sensitive, but he handled it beautifully.”
As she once said, “The reason why my Dad was such a great coach was that he kept it simple and basic and made it easy to understand, especially for the young kids. He never resorted to short cuts or gimmicks and stuck to the fundamentals. At the same time he stressed good sportsmanship and hard work. Throughout my career I was known more for my mental toughness than my physical attributes, and I owe that to my Dad. I remember when I was very young I would throw my rackets or even break a few of them. I might say a few cuss words in practice. He saw me do this and told me, ‘Don’t let your opponents see your frustrations or emotions. Keep it inside and let that work to your advantage.’ I took that advice and my competition never knew if they were getting to me. That frustrated them and it was one of the keys to my long range success.”
Over the years, I was able to get a few glimpses of how this extraordinary man went about his work. I knew him well because I came along as a reporter at the same time as Chrissie was taking her place as one of the great women players of all time. My first published piece was an interview with Chrissie for World Tennis Magazine done at Roland Garros prior to her first major final in 1973. I became known as her Boswell because I chronicled her career so closely. Through her, I met the entire family, and it was apparent to me from the moment I was introduced to Jimmy Evert in 1974 that he was as upstanding a man as you could ever meet.
On numerous occasions, I would watch him supervising Chrissie’s practice sessions at Holiday Park and at tournaments held in Florida. Once in a while, he would permit me to go out there on the court with him to observe the inner workings of his mind, to find out how wedded he was to the notion that simplicity was the essence of perfection. He would be standing behind Chrissie, overseeing the drills that she would do. Sometimes, when Chrissie would be working on her volley, she would get disgruntled after missing a few of them. She would turn and stare at her father, hoping he would clue her in about what had caused the mistakes.
Sometimes, Jimmy Evert would say nothing at all. He would just nod, as if to confirm that she need not worry. In other cases, he would utter softly, “It’s all right. You’re doing fine.” But there were times he would have her stop for a minute so he could point out how she could address these minor problems. When he did start talking about her footwork, shortening her backswing, adjusting her toss or other technical things along those lines, his words of wisdom registered with his daughter more powerfully and persuasively than would have been the case had he been an incessantly loud talker.
I always walked away from these sessions marveling at his capacity to get his message across to Chrissie by picking his spots very deliberately. He had her complete attention. He commanded respect. As she put it, “He led by example.” It was a joy for me to have the opportunity to watch those practices. I saw the master in his workshop, proving time and again that less can be more.
No one contributed to Chrissie Evert’s career more than her father. But he was seldom seen at the majors. Her mother loved to travel to the Grand Slam events and be there in the stands for Chrissie, even if the tension of certain hard fought contests was sometimes almost unbearable for her. But Colette Evert—as honorable an individual as her husband in every way, but more outgoing—was able to bear that burden. Jimmy Evert was highly uncomfortable with the spotlight and much too apprehensive about going to the Grand Slam events and being there at courtside. He preferred to keep at a distance, watching on television at home in Florida or waiting for his daughter to call him on the telephone at Holiday Park.
As Chrissie Evert recollects, “He rarely came to my tournaments and the main reason was that it made him nervous. That was okay, because it made me nervous to know that he was nervous. So it was better for me to have him back at home in Florida or at Holiday Park. But even so, I felt he was right there with me playing every point, even in the finals of Wimbledon. At the end of every match, I couldn’t wait to shake hands with my opponent, get off the court, and go call my Dad, with both of us usually ending up in tears after emotional wins or losses.”
I witnessed one of those exchanges at the 1980 U.S. Open, a watershed moment in her career. Chrissie Evert had lost to her mirror image rival Tracy Austin five times in a row over the previous year, starting with the 1979 Open final when the 16-year-old Californian prevented Evert from securing a fifth Open title in a row. Now they battled it out in the semifinals, and Evert achieved one of the most important victories in her career, toppling the tenacious Austin 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 with a cerebral display.
After the match, I walked over with Chrissie and her mother into a small office situated between the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium. Keep in mind that this was long before there was an internet. In those days, the women’s semifinals were not even shown live on television. Back at Holiday Park, Jimmy Evert could only guess what was happening with his daughter out at the U.S. Open. Picking up the phone to call her father, Chrissie was already on the brink of tears.
When he answered, I heard her say, “Dad, I won!” She was now sobbing, and so Chrissie handed the phone to Colette Evert, who conveyed Chrissie’s wishes that Jimmy Evert fly up for the final the next day. He did just that, and was present for Chrissie’s victory over Hana Mandlikova. It was her fifth of six U.S. Open title runs, but the first time Jimmy Evert had been there in person to see his daughter win a major championship.
Although he was true to his character and stylishly understated when he came out to the Open that day, Evert was later beaming in the late afternoon sunlight, delighted that he had shared that experience, realizing deep down without every saying it that he had played a major role in turning his child into a champion. Jimmy Evert returned two years later to see Chrissie win her sixth and last title, and again in 1989 when she played her 19th and final Open.
As Chrissie Evert recalls, “He was my inspiration. I always tried to win for him. 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 never asking me to be more than myself. As great as he was as a coach, he was an even better father. I will miss him more than he will ever know.”
As time marched on, Jimmy Evert stuck to his daily tasks at Holiday Park. What he did there was nothing short of stupendous. As Chrissie Evert says, “It was, quite simply, the mecca of tennis in Florida, particularly in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He helped so many players. One year there were seven players from Holiday Park competing at Wimbledon. He was not only an incredible tennis coach, but he made that place what it was, stringing rackets daily, giving lessons, signing up people for courts. In the beginning, he did everything, and all the while he took care of our family even though he worked ten hours a day, seven days a week for 49 years without fail.”
As time marched on, Jimmy Evert allowed himself to gradually slow down. One wonders if he ever realized that, as a result of his hard and important work, Holiday Park provided a template for the cavalcade of academies that later emerged. He retired at 74, and spent cherished time with his grandchildren. He admired what Chrissie and John Evert did by establishing the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, spending much of his free time over at that facility. “He would go over to the Academy and he just loved to watch the kids play,” says Chrissie Evert. “He always made himself available to talk to a parent, a coach or anybody who wanted to ask him a question. And he would come over to my house every Sunday to play tennis with my mother and me and my kids. I always looked forward to that.”
When Jimmy Evert died a few weeks ago, he was honored fittingly. “The mass was beautiful, “said Chrissie Evert, “and when my Dad was buried the heavens opened up and there was a violent storm with lightening, hail, the works. To me, that was a sign!”
Surely it was. Tennis has never known a more gallant citizen.