Chrissie Evert as my solution to the mean girls

27 November 2011

I don’t remember exactly when I started watching Chrissie Evert closely, but I’m guessing it was about 1977 or 1978, just about the time that I started to take tennis a little more seriously. It was also about the time that mean girls in my class started to emerge to taunt the rest of us about our clothes, musical tastes, whatever. They lurked, menacingly, in hallways. Chris Evert was my solution.

Evert seemed unmatched at the top during those years, even though women’s tennis was only a shadow of what it would become later. Entire games went by during which the two players simply lobbed the ball, back and forth, endlessly. It was boring, honestly.

Not that it mattered to me: watching Evert play was like watching someone figure out a problem. I was too young to understand her strategy, or what made her win. What I paid attention to was her laser focus, the set of her jaw, the unsentimentality of her play. She never cried or whined or threw her racquet — like a lot of the male players of the day. Neither was she very girly, despite the blonde hair and short skirts. She drove every single one of her emotions into winning games and sets and matches. She never seemed to get distracted by unimportant details. She’d squint her eyes and get down to business.

Watching Evert was therapeutic.

I started playing tennis in 12-and-under tournaments and realized quickly that tennis is full of mean girls, and that tennis is an emotional game. If you were picking up your balls, your opponent might throw one at you so it’d whiz by your face. “Sorry,” she’d say disingenuously. Or she’d interrupt play and waste some time rifling through her bag looking for some chapstick while she caught her breath. Or she might not shake hands after the match, or she’d cry. Plus, it’s really annoying to have someone lob balls at you for an entire game — enough that you get frustrated and make mistakes.

Clearly, Evert’s steeliness was hard-won.

Then, of course, Martina Navratilova came along. She was strong — ridiculously strong — and tall and left-handed, and she played a man’s game, serve-and-volley rather than that feminine baseline game. She was emotional. She was also Czech, which seemed dangerous and scary to my 12-year-old self. She started winning tournaments, and she didn’t stop. (Martina won Wimbledon titles nine times. Nine! as well as nine other Grand Slam titles — tying Chris’s own record.)

I hated her on Chrissie’s behalf. When she started losing matches to Martina, she seemed flummoxed. How do you solve a problem like Martina? It was as if the rules had changed.

Which is exactly what had happened. Evert has spoken many times in recent years about how Martina brought the entire women’s game to a new level because they all realized they had to start getting stronger and smarter. I didn’t know that then, though. I also didn’t know that she and Martina were great friends off the court. I felt myself caught up in Chrissie’s confusion.

Evert got stronger and smarter. She stopped being “Chrissie,” even for me, and was just Chris. The whole women’s game changed, and younger players of all kinds swarmed onto the court. Even my school’s tennis coach had us do weight training.

But what I really learned from Evert was to squint your eyes at the problem — stop getting all weepy-eyed and emotional, and figure it out. It was a subconscious realization for a while. My first Evert-inspired shift came during those tennis tournaments: I decided I would never be bitchy or bratty toward my opponents; in fact, I’d treat them exactly the way I wanted to be treated. I reasoned that whether I won or lost, I didn’t want to dirty myself with the bullshit.

I’m not sure at what point during the horrors of junior high and high school that I consciously realized what I’d learned from watching Evert. At some point I learned that being smart could make up for weaknesses in your game. It was a huge revelation. It sounds facile now, but I became a much better player when I stopped focusing on my opponent’s attempts to annoy me, and more on what I could do to move her around the court till she got tired.

I squinted my eyes and saw around the problem.

Not that the mean girls went away. The worst of them became a terrific tennis player late in high school, accentuating her skills with great use of her capacity for bitchiness. But by then I’d learned a kind of mental toughness that allowed me to set aside her worst behavior. It really didn’t matter that much anymore.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I learned as a kid by over-identifying with female athletic heroes. I’ve wondered whether tennis taught particular lessons because it’s so personal and emotional and intellectual — as opposed to team sports, which dilute the focus on individuals — or whether young girls in Waco, Texas watch the Baylor women’s basketball team, which includes phenomenon Brittney Griner (whose complex gender performance seems to flummox so many commentators), and learn lessons of their own.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of gender options for girls back in 1977: Farrah Fawcett was probably at the top of a very short list. So you’ll have to take my word for it that Chrissie Evert nevertheless taught me how to be smart, how not to be just a girl, and how to get my mind right for dealing with mean girls. Watching her address the problem of Martina Navratilova helped me figure out problems of my own. Considering the Charlie’s Angels of contemporary television, Evert was mind-blowingly interesting and complex.

What does it mean for girls now to have female athletes as wide-ranging as the fiercely muscled tennis genius Serena Williams, the highly masculine-looking/ gender-bending Griner, the openly gay soccer player Abby Wambach? I wish I were 11 years old and could figure it out on my own — and go on to change the world.

14 Responses to “Chrissie Evert as my solution to the mean girls”

  1. servetus Says:

    Wow, a fascinating post. I remember this rivalry, too, and I remember having a lot of sympathy for Navratilova because the sports commentators seemed not to like her so much as they did Evert. But I also remember admiring Evert, particularly her energy. The other thing I remember thinking was how consummately on top of things Evert seemed as soon as she started doing sports commentary.

    It’s hard for me to see myself through the frame of athletics (probably as hard as it is for you to see yourself through the frame of religion) because I see it as the source of nothing but humiliation, but I agree that the gender component of all of this is fascinating — not least because of the way that the commentary of the late 1970s and early 80s constructed them both at least implicitly in the light of late Cold War politics. It wasn’t just that Martina was Czech — it was that she was *communist*. Like Nadia Comaneci. They might win! Somehow for me Navratilova’s unwillingness to conform to traditional gender tropes was tied up with the perception that “over there” there were different, and problematic, gender roles. In a society where people weren’t supposed to have private property, you could end up with women like Navratilova. It was a tantalizing and frightening prospect.

    • Didion Says:

      I definitely bought into the gender/nationalistic/Cold War fear-mongering bias against Martina. There were some unsubtle sexuality issues as well — people suspected her of being gay — although because Billie Jean King had been outed a long time earlier, it wasn’t as big a deal as it might have been otherwise. I remember rooting for Chris to win because it might mean some kind of US triumph over communism. And I was a child, relatively speaking!

      It wasn’t till I was in high school and was doing that weight training a la Martina that I started to watch her with new eyes. I’d say that by the time I was 14 or 15 I was explicitly modeling my play after hers — she had incredible control. And because I had an openly gay high school tennis coach even during the height of the AIDS era probably also made me realize that Martina’s gender/sexuality weren’t that important to whether she was good at tennis.

      You know, I remember so well those quotidian schoolyard humiliations — being picked last for softball, getting confused in basketball and scoring at my opponent’s end of the court (to their benefit), etc. But mostly I was just an okay athlete willing to work pretty hard to get better. I’ve often wondered whether I would have watched and admired adult women athletes with the same attention if I’d been a more natural prodigy at sport. School always came easily to me, and sports didn’t; it felt like a challenge. Some part of me didn’t want to be just a smart kid — I wanted to be good at other things, too. It seemed to blur the gender boundaries for me, I think.

      • servetus Says:

        Good point about Billy Jean, I had forgotten that context.

        I think I was so clumsy no one thought there’d be any hope for me 🙂 But I also think that the way PE was taught in my school was totally at odds to my perception of myself as a physical body. It was all about being competitive and skills for competition. I remember enjoying the game / fun part of PE, with soccer, kickball, and volleyball, but that was all gone by fifth grade. Oddly, it was the experience of sex that taught me about embodiment — and I didn’t have that until I was almost out of college!

        There was something about Chris’s face that made you think she just enjoyed being her. That was harder to get from Martina.

      • Didion Says:

        Remember this?
        very young dancer
        I’d forgotten all about it till I saw that book’s cover reproduced in a NY Times article about what happened to the girl — a sad story, but not an unusual one for very ambitious and competitive young athletes, dancers, etc. I remember reading the book as a kid — the girl isn’t much older than I am — and thinking, damn, that’s a lot of work just to do one thing.

        So I think your distaste at the competitive bullshit was well-founded. Remember the movie Black Swan — yikes.

      • JustMeMike Says:

        Thanks for a great piece of writing. You know this post was very personal, and it seems a distance from your usual style.

        I think that your reference about how watching the professionals in sport was linked to your own skill sets – and you wondered if you had been a better athlete you might have paid less attention to them was a great question. My answer is that the sports I was good in – basketball and baseball got intense attention to the pros. But sports like ice hockey, and football and tennis got less – and it was because I was never going to play them.

        I too remember Chrissie vs Martina and Borg vs Connors. I think i hadn’t used a two handed backhand until I saw Chrissie and Bjorn doing it so effectively. My tennis game went nowhere. I was more suited for basketball. But I always watched them – but all the tennis we saw then was the US Open and the Wimbledon. Always on the July 4th and Labor Day holidays

        Bud Collins called Bjorn Borg the Angelic Assassin, and Breakfast at Wimbledon was a July 4th must see.

        I rooted very hard for Chrissie because she was a natural underdog to Martina’s size and strength. Somehow even though Martina bested Chrissie more often than not – I never rooted for her. So in that sense, I valued the effort more than the results.


      • Didion Says:

        Thanks, JMM! I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Chrissie. I was a little too young for the Borg/Connors duels but I remember Borg/McEnroe. I may not have liked Martina at first, but boy, my Americanness never posed a problem for falling in love with Bjorn Borg over Johnny Mac.

        He’s still gorgeous, actually. The camera caught a glimpse of him in the stands at last year’s French Open and John McEnroe, as commentator, quipped, “Well, it’s too bad he’s lost his looks.”

        I’m curious, though: did you change your mind about rooting for Martina when she was still playing (and winning) as a doubles player at Wimbledon when she was in her mid-40s? I’ve found myself to be ridiculously sentimental about athletes who are called “old” — which sometimes means early 30s — and even more so when they’re “ancient.”

  2. Very thought provoking post about female tennis players, thanks for sharing.

  3. What a great post, thank you so much! You make me wish that I could play tennis. Alas, I’ll just have to watch the strong women that are serious inspirations to a lot of us.

  4. JustMeMike Says:

    “I’m curious, though: did you change your mind about rooting for Martina when she was still playing (and winning) as a doubles player at Wimbledon when she was in her mid-40s? I’ve found myself to be ridiculously sentimental about athletes who are called “old” — which sometimes means early 30s — and even more so when they’re “ancient.””

    Actually – can’t say that I watched her in doubles. From another angle – to me those super longs sets and the lengthy volleys were an aspect of the player’s endurance, speed, agility, and strength. To play a 5 set singles match requires a level of fitness unmatched by any other sport. Which is why I was never enthused about doubles.

  5. Dominique Millette Says:

    Great post. You made some very mature observations for someone so young (in fact we could all learn from them even as adults), I was partial to Martina myself, but admired Chris Evert nevertheless. That was my Clash of the Titans, once Borg went away.

    • Didion Says:

      I miss these great clashes; I was sorry when it wasn’t Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in every final. I’ve missed seeing two great female titans go at it in finals, especially since Serena and Venus often had disappointing matches when they battled one another.

      I don’t know if I had mature observations as an 11-yr-old, but I sure watched carefully. Just like the mean girls made me think long and hard. Hell, isn’t that often a contemplative time for kids? They’re figuring out who they are.

  6. mary jones Says:

    May I give my opinion as a European against the american view.
    Born in a communist country does not automatically make you a communist, say like a nationality. To call Martina a communist is a big offense, nobody in her family was a member of the communist party this was not only courageous but you did not get a good job because of that. Martina was as a youngster sent to a meeting of the communist party she should stay there for three days but went home after only one hour, her parents were worried about her. After Martina defected and had to miss her family she was not always happy on the court but that did not mean she did not love the game I hope by now you all know she loves the game. In the documentary Unmatched Chris said she did not always liked her youth when she was forced to play tennis by her father, ironically it is Martina who said she had a great youth. It saddenes me always to hear that fans of Chris Evert hated Martina but then I am not brainwashed by the american press and there were enough commentators and journalist who liked Martina. When I watched a match in the middle of the night it was for Martina.

    • servetus Says:

      I appreciate the frustration with us / me in your comment. At least in my case, I was a kid / teenager living in a rural area when watching these matches. I know now, as an adult, that the truth is more complex. At that time, though, I was living through the end of detente and the acceleration of the tensions that characterized the end of the Cold War. We were raised to be frightened of communism and athletes from behind the Iron Curtain were a key target of what we were supposed to be afraid of. It is not an excuse to say I didn’t know any better than to listen to and/or believe our press as a child and a teenager, but it is a fact.

      • Didion Says:

        It is depressing, isn’t it? And I think the fact that Martina was tall and strong compounded my own rural town’s fears of scary Eastern Bloc athletes. And the fact that the US stayed out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics made Americans feel insecure about “losing” the athletic race. I remember so well the 1984 Olympics, such an embarrassing display of American hubris and rah-rah Americanism. Even at the time it was too much. Not that any of this rationalizes the anti-Martina attitudes of the late 70s & early 80s, but at least one can see the context.

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