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By Jared Shapiro | February 27, 2014 | People
On the eve of the annual Sony Open Tennis, legendary champion Chris Evert continues to give back both on and off the court.
Former champion Chris Evert presenting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to the winner of this year’s Australian Open, China’s Li Na.
She has the highest win percentage in the history of professional tennis. With 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 157 singles titles, her name is consistently pitted against Serena, Steffi, and Martina as the greatest ever. Although technically retired, her impact on the tennis world remains as strong as ever. The single mother of three sons is hard at work covering tournaments for ESPN and teaching her winning ways to future stars with the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton. Throw in her work with the Evert charities, and this champion continues to serve up ace after ace.
What do you think of the tennis culture in Florida and its place in the tennis world as a whole?
There are a lot of academies and training centers here, and Florida is sort of the tennis hub. It actually started at Holiday Park, where I grew up with my dad. When my dad was running Holiday Park, at one point in one year in the ’70s, we had seven juniors who were training there who played Wimbledon.
Evert (then Evert-Lloyd) during a match at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament in 1986.
Who are some of the latest stars you’ve trained?
We’ve had Madison Keys train with us, and she’s top 50 in the world right now. Lauren Davis trained with us. We had Tracy Capra, who is a professional player. She had a third round of the Open a few years ago. And we had the Canadian Jesse Levine train here for a while, and he’s top 100 now.
How did this academy start?
It was all my brother John’s idea. He manages the academy. He bugged me for two years to start an academy and I said, ‘No, no, no, no. It’s too much money. I don’t want to make that investment. It’s too risky. I don’t know if I want to put the time in.’ And finally, I kind of gave in. He said, ‘I’ll manage it. You can come in and out when you want.’ I discovered that I wanted to be there all the time. So I started going over there every day. These kids live with us 12 months a year, 24 hours a day. Out of all my businesses since I’ve retired [from professional tennis], it’s been the thing I’ve enjoyed the most. Having kids has been the highlight of my life, but as far as business is concerned, this academy has been a passion for me. I worried about [what I was going to do] after retiring while being a mom. This academy is the type of thing I can continue to have for years to come.
Evert and Eugenie Bouchard play tennis on a makeshift court during a photoshoot in Singapore this past January.
Looking back, how did you prepare for a tournament when you were competing?
I’m the kind of player who, the night before a match, would do visualization. I would sit quietly and visualize in my mind, go over points, go over strategy. Being in a positive visualization, in the sense I’d be winning every point in my mind.
Tell us about your diet when you were competing. What modifications did you need to make? Was it heavy on carbs? Gluten-free?
No gluten-free for me back in those days. This was 30 years ago; it was protein and carbs. It would be a piece of chicken plus some rice and some veggies. Protein was important. That stays in your body a little longer. And from the moment I woke up, I started sipping and drinking water. And I always got at least 10 hours of sleep a night. That was really important for my immune system. I would also get stretched out before the match, and then after the match get stretched out again and usually have a massage. It’s a science, really, just keeping your body like a machine. It’s not a luxury to get a massage after every match. It’s sort of a necessity.
With Gavin Rossdale at last year’s Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic at Boca Raton Resort. Since its inception, the event has raised over $20 million to prevent drug abuse in South Florida.
If you could compete against anyone playing now, who would it be?
It wouldn’t be Serena Williams. She’d overpower me for sure. She just has such an advantage with the big serve and the power and the mobility. I wouldn’t mind playing Maria Sharapova just to see if I could move her off the baseline because she’s so dominant and strong on the baseline, but maybe a little more vulnerable up around the net, and my drop shot was my best shot.
What makes a champion?
To be a great player, you have to do the physical work, obviously. You have to do the training, you have to be physically fit, and you have to have all the shots. To be a champion, you’ve got to be superior mentally. You have to want it more, maybe need it. You have to react well to pressure, under pressure. I think a lot of players struggle with that. When your back is against the wall, you’ve got to make things happen. To me, the greatest champions that we’ve seen, like Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, and on the men’s side, like right now, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, they just have that edge mentally. You can see it, the intensity, when they’re playing. They’re in the moment every point. They don’t let up for a second.
Evert giving pointers to young players at her Evert Tennis Academy.
Can you teach that or are you just born with it?
I think you’re born with it, just like you’re born with natural athletic genes. You can make it better by working at it, but it’s just like for me, no matter how hard I work physically, I still would never have been the athlete that Martina and Steffi were. You can work at it up to a certain point, but it’s innate. I think because I wasn’t the biggest, strongest, and quickest out there, that motivated me to be even stronger mentally to compensate.
You’ve got the Chris Evert Children’s Hospital, the Chris Evert charities—is this your legacy?
I started the Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic (in Boca Raton) the year after I retired, in 1990, the first year I had time on my hands, and I decided to have a tennis tournament. It helps prevent drug abuse, but it’s also about abused children and about mothers and children. We [help fund] about four or five different centers down here in South Florida. I call my tennis-playing friends and my celebrity friends, and we get a great couple of sponsors, and we have a fun weekend. It’s been going on now for over two decades. The life of a tennis player is so self-absorbed. After I retired, I was ready to give to everybody else but myself. And we’ve raised over $20 million for South Florida. You just get kind of tired and bored when it’s only about you. Having kids was a great eye-opener. Having children is the most important thing you can ever do in your life. Evert Tennis Academy, 10334 Diego Dr. S., Boca Raton, 800-417-3783
photography by michael dodge/getty images (australian open); mike powell/getty images (virginia slims); getty images/stringer (wimbledon); rahman roslan (bouchard); vallery jean/wireimage.com (rossdale); fred and susan mullane (tennis academy)