After one last month on hard courts, the ATP and WTA Tours are transitioning to clay, and so must we on TTI. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sliding down a memory lane made of “terre battue” – and look at some of the most successful players on the surface – starting with none other than the Queen of Clay herself.
Chris Evert. How do I even begin to explain Chris Evert?
Chris Evert’s streak of 34 consecutive Major semifinals between 1971-1983 is flawless. She has 18 major titles and was the year-end No. 1 an astounding seven times. I hear she did car commercials … for Payless.
And she had her own Wilson signature racquet.
She is an Ice Queen who needs no introduction, arguably one of the greatest to have ever picked up a racquet. Her rivalry with Martina Navratilova transcended the sport and was a driving force behind bringing the game to the next level. Throughout her career, the Florida native won a staggering 157 titles and spent 260 weeks atop of the WTA rankings, dominating the rankings for more than a decade, together with her left-handed “frenemy.”
Perhaps most astonishing are the American’s clay court credentials. Throughout her career, the seven-time French Open Champion only lost a total of 22 matches on her strongest surface – next to 382 victories, making her the player with the best clay court W-L percentage in WTA history.
Evert went on an absolute tear on red and green dirt starting in 1973. For the next six years, she did not lose a single match on clay, stringing together 125 wins in succession, dropping only eight sets in total – a record unparalleled, then and now.
But was it that made the American so tough opponent on clay?
When she came on the scene, Evert provided a refreshing foil to the game’s elite. Many of the women were more than capable around the baseline, but the majority preferred to finish points at the net – a sensible approach when three of the four major tournaments were held on grass. Evert’s game, by contrast, was based on patience, footwork and precision, particularly when she announced herself in the early 70s.
Equipped with some of the best groundstrokes of her (all) time, the American had all the tools to outmaneuver opponents. At her best, it was rare to see a shot off the racquet of the six-time US Open winner’s racquet that lacked intent. One of the first players with a double-handed backhand – and a very reliable one at that – Evert’s baseline game didn’t give rivals many openings as she soaked up pressure and applied pace from both sides.
In many ways, clay seemed like a natural match to Evert’s intrinsic abilities. She was a thoughtful competitor with staying power, a keen understanding of court geometry, and an abundant hunger for success. One did not simply “overwhelm” Evert on clay – she stayed with her opponent, played within herself and, once they showed a sign of weakness, ruthlessly exploited her opportunities. The American had a particular knack for playing big points well – likely a result of countless practice sets and matches growing up, sharpening her awareness and giving her a mental edge over many of her contemporaries.
With the emergence of Navratilova – and her later emphasis on fitness – Evert found herself in the gym as well, adding more power to her shots throughout the 80s. Though her rival ultimately turned the tide on their head-to-head, clay largely remained Evert’s stronghold.
Most remembered for her prowess on the red clay of Europe, it was the green clay along the other side of the Atlantic that proved to be equally successful for Evert – understandably, since she grew up on it. During her early reign at the top of the game, three US Open Championships were held on green clay before changing to hard court we know today.
Evert lifted the trophy each and every time, losing just 12 games en route to the title in 1976.
Over the decades, the surface has largely disappeared from schedules, with the WTA’s Family Circle Cup – held in Charleston this week – serving as the last garrison of the har-tru courts. The longest standing women’s only tournament started out on Hilton Head Island in 1973, and Evert won it eight times, the last of which 30 years ago, against a then-14-year-old Gabriela Sabatini:
Evert’s game is one that in many ways shaped today’s game. Her double-handed backhand left a legacy that impacted generations of players that followed. During her career, the American was largely a baseline specialist, with counterpunching instincts earlier in her career, but later became more aggressive. Her precision and groundstrokes undoubtedly set a high standard many are eager to match.
The first-ever WTA No. 1 often displayed nerves of steel when it mattered most. She not only understood, but also honed the characteristics of her favorite surface to maximize her abilities.
And that’s why she is one of the greatest clay court players of all time.
How do you think Evert’s game shaped tennis on clay? Sound off in the comments!