“MEIt was the longest four days of my life,” says Chris Evert as he recalls coping with mortality last December while awaiting a second cancer diagnosis. Evert, who won 18 Grand Slam titles between 1974 and 1986, had just undergone surgery for ovarian cancer. He was then tested to determine if the cancer had spread, as he puts it, “to the lymph nodes connected to my reproductive organs. If I tested positive for lymph nodes, I would have been stage three or four. My type of cancer, ovarian cancer, is very insidious and cunning, as there are not many signs that you have it. When you find out you have ovarian cancer, you’re usually stage three or four, which basically means curtains.”
The 67-year-old has been such a familiar presence for so long, first as a prominent tennis player and then in the commentary box, that it shudders to hear her confront her own death. She was revered for her composure at court, even when she first became famous after reaching the semifinals of the US Open in 1971 at the age of 16 but Evert looks up with a puzzled expression when I ask him to describe his emotions as he waits for the test results.
“I felt very anxious because I had no control over the situation,” she says. “I prayed a lot, and I prayed to my sister [Jeanne, who died in 2020 after a harrowing battle with ovarian cancer]. He surprised me too, like he was in a fog, and I was so scared that I used my powers on the court and tried to block him a little bit.”
Evert was close to his sister and witnessed her years of suffering. Those memories enveloped their four-day wait. “I thought about Jeanne a lot and it was scarier to know what the journey ahead would be for me if she was stage four, rather than actual death. He had seen her with ports in her chest and needles in her arms and, after chemotherapy, going through experimental drugs. She became seriously ill and she weighed 80 pounds when she passed away. Seeing her flow by, like fear, those four days. Sometimes you just have to give up if you can’t change it.”
Evert looks up and smiles, relieved. “But it was clear to me. They said he needed six rounds of chemo, so I made an announcement. [before the Australian Open in January]. I could tell everyone that I have stage one ovarian cancer and I am going through chemotherapy and doctors say there is a 90 to 95% chance that the cancer will not come back. I should never complain about anything else in life after that experience.”
Normally, during a long interview, you save difficult topics for later; but it’s different with Evert. We start this way and it shows Evert’s willingness to speak up about cancer as well as his desire to raise awareness. “Two years after Jeanne’s death, I got a call from the geneticist who banked her blood. A new variant had emerged and Jeanne had a gene of uncertain significance. She was tested and she tested positive for BRCA [genetic proof of being susceptible to breast or ovarian cancer] so they immediately said, ‘You have to get tested.’ He tested positive for BRCA. My doctor said that he needs a hysterectomy right away. It was just a precaution because I felt very healthy. They found cancer in my fallopian tube and one ovary, and in the fluid around my reproductive organs.
“If it hadn’t been for Jeanne’s death, I wouldn’t be alive. So I want to get the word out about genetic testing, not just for ovarian cancer, but for heart conditions, diabetes, everything. Be aware of his genetic background and if you feel anything different in his body for three days, see your doctor. Don’t wait three months.”
Evert supported the Women’s Tennis Association’s ACEing Cancer charity even before her diagnosis and is proud that a new WTA-backed research fund has been named in honor of her sister. Her bruised encounters with cancer also mean that she reflects candidly on life. Evert still winces when she mentions that, since the US Open starts on Monday, it has been 51 years since she made her unforgettable breakthrough in New York. “Oh my God,” she exclaims.
Evert shone in the 1971 tournament, surviving multiple match points while beating famous players, before losing to Billie Jean King in the semi-finals. There was resentment in the locker room towards Evert, who was suddenly on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and she explains how King stood up for her. “She told them, ‘Chris is going to bring more money to tennis and put money in his pocket.’ Besides, how can you be mean to an innocent 16 year old girl? Billie Jean made them clear. She was alone, but my mom traveled with me and after the matches I went back to my room and did my homework.”
Last year, Evert saw Emma Raducanu achieve something even more remarkable when she won the US Open as a qualifier. It was an impressive and dream debut for the 18-year-old and, also, for Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 days before her exciting final.
“Thank you,” Evert exclaims when I mention Fernández. “She beat three of the top five girls. She had a much harder drawing. I love that girl.
Raducanu was still beating her up, but since then the British teenager has suffered from injuries, fluctuations in form, scrutiny and criticism. Her experience has been a reminder that unexpected success comes at a cost. “Always. Emma’s victory would definitely bring a lot of challenges that she has never experienced before,” says Evert. “She still needs to improve, but she is still a great champion. She won the US Open. She will have that for the rest of her life.” her.
“The hard part is carrying that momentum and backing it up. she hasn’t. But she seems very down to earth in her comments: ‘I’m still developing my game, I’m going to be patient.’ She is saying all the right things. If she believes them, she will be fine.”
Is the US Open likely to remain an outlier in Raducanu’s career? “I wouldn’t call her a one-hit wonder. I like his technique, it’s very solid,” says Evert. “I like the kick off him and the groundstrokes off him. She moves well. She has talent, but how much does she want it? Does she bite her nails to win another one? Hunger is the main thing.”
A ravenous hunger to succeed is one of the many attributes that helped Serena Williams, who recently lost 6-4, 6-0 to Raducanu in Cincinnati, win 23 Grand Slams. This month, Williams announced her impending retirement with the US Open likely to be her last tournament. “She’s 40 years old,” says Evert. She “she has lost to players she would normally beat and hasn’t trained due to injuries. She has a lot of wonderful things going on in her life as well, and instead of getting frustrated and sinking down the rankings, this is the perfect time to come out.”
Does Williams have a realistic, albeit unlikely, chance of winning one last US Open? “It’s a long shot,” adds Evert, “but if she had to pick 10 women who had a chance, she’d be there.”
Is Williams arguably the greatest player of all time? “It is such a difficult question. In his time it is the greatest of all time. Then there is the most successful career: how many tournaments did you win and how consistent were you, and I always include Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova alongside Serena because in my time they were the best of all time.
Margaret Court won 24 Grand Slams, one more than Williams, but the Australian dominated in the pre-Open era. “She won 11 Australian Opens, but hardly any of the top players went to Australia at the time. I played 18 years and only six Australian Opens,” says Evert. “I played World Team Tennis [when the leading women forged a path of independence to gain equality with men] and missed three French Open [which she won seven times]. We were creating a tour and changing history, fighting for the same prize money and future generations.
“Now, there is a different philosophy. It’s about the Grand Slams. Is Serena the best tennis player so far? Absolutely. But it’s complicated when you compare runs, wins and eras. I’m not sure she has the most successful career.”
The depth of the women’s game is staggering, but the rivalries, of the epic kind that Evert shared with Navratilova over 80 matches, struggle to develop. “A great rivalry is excellent for tennis, as is a player who dominates. When Serena was dominating we had the highest ratings. But the game is also great when you have newcomers like Coco Gauff who is going to win a Grand Slam in a year or two. The beauty of women’s tennis now is depth. There are no rivalries yet, but there are many personalities and great stories.
Who could establish such a fascinating rivalry? “Iga Swiatek [the world No 1] and Coco would be my two best,” says Evert. “That could be a great rivalry. Right now, Iga has to be the favorite for the US Open.”
Such speculation feels frivolous after the last nine months of Evert’s life. Did the cancer change her? “I like to think so. I’m not as fearful or anxious as I used to be. I feel grateful and more relaxed and I don’t take things so seriously. I used to get tense when I was studying to call a game. I’m not that intense.” .
Evert reflects on fame and her three marriages: to former tennis player John Lloyd, alpine skier Andy Mill, and golfer Greg Norman. “We could do a five-hour interview about fame and lack of privacy and how you pay a price when you’re successful at a young age and haven’t developed a personality and your morals and beliefs. It can stunt your growth
“When I got home after winning Wimbledon [aged 19 in 1974] She still had to empty the dishwasher and fold the laundry. My feet were on the ground. The only area in my life that [fame] affected were relationships. When people tell you for years how great you are, they don’t put limits on you and you can get away with a lot of things. Later in life, that affects their relationships, not only with their husbands, but also with their siblings and their best friend.
“John and I were alone, on tour, but I was so interested in being number 1 that I couldn’t give enough to the marriage. But we still love each other and are good friends. My most successful marriage was with Andy. We were married 20 years but I made a bad decision [leaving Mill for Norman]. It was a mistake.”
Evert is skeptical about Norman’s involvement in the Saudi Arabian sportswash and the LIV Golf Series. “He knows how I feel. I don’t support it,” she says.
There is no bitterness or resentment in Evert. She just seems grateful for life. “Your health is the most important. I hate to say it but, for me, it even comes before love. To love, you have to be alive. I’m still attentive to my health, but I want to be as authentic as possible and be more open and listen more. That’s all a result of cancer. I’m very lucky to be here.”