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.

Advertisements