ALWAYS THERE (Occasional Sports Moment #32)

Chris Evert was the most important female athlete of the twentieth century.

Some people would argue Billie Jean King was more important. I’d say that’s a little like suggesting Branch Rickey was more important than Jackie Robinson, or John the Baptist was more important than Jesus. Yes, someone must clear the path (and Billie Jean, unlike Mr. Rickey or The Baptist, was great in the arena).

But it’s the one who walks through the last gate who fulfills the final, most vital task–the thing that cannot be done by the world simply asking or allowing a new thing to be given a chance or even by the very best people with the very best intentions dedicating their own lives to making it so.

Jesus and Jackie have gotten their due. Evert has not. (There are reasons. I discussed some of them here.)

Jesus’ job was to sacrifice his life for mankind. Jackie’s was to excel on the field and take all the guff that came with breaking the color line in the only sport where, in 1948, it mattered.

Evert’s job–one I doubt she wanted any more than Jackie wanted to keep his considerable temper–was to put butts in the seats and keep eyes glued to the tube and to do it for a long enough period of time that taking a non-Olympic women’s sport seriously would take hold for good.

This is something she alone has ever done in the history of day-to-day women’s sports. Today’s women, playing her sport only reasonably well, routinely make more in endorsements than those playing other sports do for winning like crazy–and that’s on top of their sport, in good years or bad, already being a long way tops in competitive prize money.

Thank Chris Evert for all that. Without her there would be a tour. And it would be every bit as popular as the LPGA or the WNBA. (Or Billie Jean’s real passion, World Team Tennis. Not even Chris Evert, who, at the peak of her career, sacrificed the records that would have made it impossible to dismiss her in the Greatest of All Time** argument to support it, could make that dog hunt.)

The best moment in this very good interview (conducted by Steve Flink, a rare good tennis journalist and one with whom Evert has a strong enough relationship to keep her appointment even with what sounds like a terrible head cold) about her U.S. Open career, is Evert describing the two weeks when, at sixteen, she burst onto the scene with a series of improbable upsets and comebacks against the tour’s best players. The professional tour was so new it wasn’t even an idea when Evert took to the Lauderdale public courts ten years earlier, deploying her signature, revolutionary two-handed backhand because her six-year-old hands were otherwise too small to wield the racket.

Although it would be a worthwhile interview in any case because it’s a rare case of a long interview sticking almost entirely to tennis (these days, most tennis “journalists” don’t even bother with this when they are calling matches), the real kicker is when Evert and Flink revisit the moment she put not only women’s tennis, but tennis, on the front page of the paper.

Not the sports page.

The paper.

Up to and including the New York Times…and the one in my home town and yours, too.

They don’t say it so I will….

No one else, then or since, could have done that. And then backed it up with a career so consistent I–doubtless not alone–endured mild but lasting trauma eighteen years later when she retired and I was forced to confront the cold, harsh reality that there really was no rule that said my favorite player had to be in the finals every single week.

Still not sure I’m over it. All I can say is tennis is now the last sport I follow with any regularity. Not because of what it is. But because of what I know it can be.

**True, only fools do so now. But the world is run by fools. I’m sure you’ve noticed.