By Kathleen Kernicky
November 28 2004
It has been three decades since a pony-tailed, teenage Chris Evert reached the finals of the U.S. Open and was welcomed home by cheering crowds in Fort Lauderdale.
The 16-year-old, who had lost to Billie Jean King, had won something bigger by becoming the first teen star of tennis, and in the years that followed, a tennis legend.
Coached by her father, Jimmy, on the courts at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, Evert was ranked No. 1 in the world for seven years. She holds 157 singles titles. She won 1,309 matches and eight Grand Slam titles, including three times at Wimbledon.
Since she retired in 1989, Evert's life has focused on family and giving back to the tennis community as well as to numerous charities.
She and husband Andy Mill have three sons, ages 8, 10 and 13 and she remains close to her parents and siblings. Eight years ago, she opened Evert Tennis Academy on a sprawling green campus in west Boca Raton, where her brother, John, is a manager and brother, Drew, is a coach. Her sister, Clare, co-directs the annual Chris Evert/Bank of America Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic, a two-day charity benefit being held Saturday and Dec. 5 in Delray Beach.
We caught up with Evert recently at the academy, where she spends three or four days a week coaching students and playing tennis with her sons after school.
A relaxed Evert, wearing tennis garb, cap and necklace with a peace symbol, talked about her kids, her fitness routine and her upcoming charity weekend.
And she weighed in on another milestone she'll reach next month: Her 50th birthday.
Do you have a fitness routine?
Unlike other women, my fitness is not for looking good or vanity. I get cranky if I don't do anything or if I miss three days. Fitness has been a part of me since I was 6 years old when I started playing tennis.
I play tennis here three or four times a week for two hours after my kids go to school. I've got to have the cardio. Once a week I do Bikram Yoga [which is practiced in a heated room]. I do that because of all the pounding in tennis. It's a lot of warm stretching. It's great for balance and strength, and at the same time, you're just focusing on yourself for an hour and a half.
Once every two weeks, I do weights. That's my third priority. After 40, I find you start getting the [jiggly] arms.
Is fitness more of a challenge now? Do you still practice some of the same tennis drills?
I do a lot of the same drills, a lot of moving drills. Of course, everything is not as good. Reflexes aren't as good. I don't move as well. That's the real mind-opener. It's almost like every seven years, you find a big jump. I'm 49 now and I almost have to say that this year I felt a little like, `I'm just not getting this.'
Your thoughts on turning 50 next month?
I think the number is intimidating. At the same time, I live in a young world. I love coming in the morning and just joking around with 15, 16-year-olds.
But my life now … I have to say just how fulfilling it is. Youth is wasted on the young -- that is so true. All the cliches are true. Because I didn't have a clue when I was in my 20s.
Relationships are more intimate. Whether it's the girls, your relationship with your husband, your relationship with your children. And I've allowed myself to go through the layers and really get to the core of what I can give.
I've just been reminded by so many people this year that it's the big 5-0. … And I think you start to think about your life and doing the things you want to do before it's too late.
Even with all of your accomplishments?
Yes, but that was work. I think you start to think about the things personally that you want to do. Whether it's traveling to China with a girlfriend or whether it's going to Kenya with your boys. You start to live life, I think, with a little more passion.
So you enjoy tennis more today, in retirement?
There's no stress. People have no idea [of the pressures.] The only way I can sum it up is by saying that in the 10 years after I retired, every day I woke up and felt like I was on vacation.
Every day for those 25 years that I was playing, every morning I woke up and there was stress and pressure. Whether it was a match that day, or whatever reason. I always had to play because it's 12 months a year.
Thank God, I was cut out for it. I could handle it. I handled it well. But you just don't realize the anxiety. Then I went through phases where I was emotional, where I let the emotion come out because I always held it in while I was playing. I was known for just holding it in.
As a player you needed to do that?
I think that was part of what made me great, probably, was more the mental than the physical.
In regard to fitness, are you as disciplined now as you were then?
Discipline is a funny word because you think of discipline as work. I'll wake up some mornings and I don't want to do anything. So I'll bring my kids to school and I'll come home and I'll go to bed. I'm not as Type A personality as I used to be.
So you spend several days a week coaching here, playing tennis?
I come here because I love the kids. I love the coaches. I love the tennis. If I can give the kids something, I'm accomplishing a lot. And I'm helping myself as well as them. So I have the best of both worlds.
My husband said to me the other day, `What would you do if you didn't have the academy?' And I was thinking, would I come home? Would I start having lunch with the girls? Would I live the Boca life? (Laughs) I don't know what I'd do.
I have a purpose. This is my second home.
You wouldn't be happy doing the Boca life?
No, I wouldn't. I'm kidding. No, that's not me ... I don't wear any jewelry. I'm running around town without makeup, with a hat on. I'm very comfortable. I don't have to prove anything. When people say, `Oh, you live in Boca, what about ...' I mean, Boca women have a reputation: (Laughs) Boca babes.
What's your favorite recreational activity?
Playing tennis with my kids and also skiing but it has to be on perfectly groomed slopes, like corduroy snow -- and it has to be in the West.
What do you do to relax?
I love deep-tissue massages. To me that's very relaxing.
Your three sons play tennis now. Do you think they'll go the route you did?
I don't think so. I hope not. I think they're looking at, like, high school and college tennis.
What's your favorite activity as a family?
When we're in Aspen, we all go out to the slopes together. The boys like to snowboard. My husband and I will ski. I'm a good skier, I'm not great. The kids are fearless. They're great.
My sons ride motorcycles, they snowboard. They're very athletic. They do every sport. And for the first time I have a house with tennis courts in the back. So sometimes at 10 o'clock at night, you'll find all five of us on the tennis court.
What a great coach they have.
Why don't you tell them that? They're like, `Mom, you were No. 1 in the world and you keep missing that shot?' They don't think of me, like, with respect as to what I've achieved. They look at me like, `Mom, why did you miss that ball?'
Do you have a special diet for yourself or your kids?
I've always eaten whatever I want to eat. I like the sugar, the chocolate chip cookies. I make sure I get enough protein during the day and drink a lot of water.
Instead of telling my kids what not to eat, I just give them strawberries and fresh fruit and just make sure they get good stuff. More that approach than saying, `You're not going to have a Coke.' I think I'm more strict with fitness and getting enough sleep.
How did you balance the pressures of early success and fame and finding a happy life after retirement?
I think you've got to prioritize what you want to do. I think family has a lot to do with it. I come from a close family. I always wanted to have kids. My No. 1 priority now is to be a good mom … Three o'clock comes around, I pick up my kids from school and then I'm mom for the rest of the day.
For the first 10 years, I always had one child at home. It was like, you're at the mercy of your child. And I miss some aspects of that, believe me. But then it's like, after 10 years, you get your life back together.
This is the 15th anniversary of your Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic. Why is this important to you?
It goes toward drug abuse and substance abuse and the moms and their children and the different centers. It's a problem that we have down here that a lot of people aren't aware of. They're aware of the well-known causes and charities like AIDS and cancers. But this is a charity that we tend to forget about … that is, people with problems and giving people a second chance.
It has become something that I want to give back. I feel like as a tennis player, I was given so much. Yes, I worked hard. But I was given prize money. … I was given opportunities to travel. I think everybody who's been given something, a gift or a privilege -- everybody should give back. And I've always said that. I had giving parents. I think growing up in that environment, it becomes an obvious thing.
Kathleen Kernicky can be reached at 954-356-4725 or email@example.com.
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