Chris Evert came back last week, and until Sunday it was as if she had never been away. The only thing new about the 1978 model Evert was her fashionably crinkled hairdo. Her play, through the semifinals of the Virginia Slims tournament in Boston, her first competition after four months of self-imposed exile from the women's tour, was the same brilliant, implacable brand of tennis that won 11 tournaments and half a million dollars in prize money last year.
In the final, however, she ran up against Evonne Goolagong, who herself is in the midst of a dramatic comeback following the birth, 10 months ago, of her first child, Kelly Cawley. Evonne played her last major tournament in September 1976. Then she retired to her home on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Kelly, who travels the tour with her mother, father Roger, and nurse Keren Fergus, grins happily at the sporting press from her mother's lap during interviews.
A couple of months after Kelly was born, Evonne began to condition herself, something she never had to concern herself with before. She jogged and jumped rope and lifted weights and played tennis with her husband until finally, in Australia late in the year, she won four tournaments on grass and appeared well on her way to a triumphant 1978.
Her progress slowed, however, when she got indoors on the Slims circuit in January. Injuries, especially to her feet, began to plague her, and pain became a part of her life for the first time. Still, coming into the Boston tournament, she had won two Slims tournaments, one in Houston in January and one in Dallas two weeks ago. She was obviously getting into shape mentally. The physical problems would work themselves out in time, she assured everyone who asked.
The Goolagong-Evert final was a landmark in a competition that dates back six years. It went to three sets, and though it was not the best match the pair had ever played, it was close, and in the third set very exciting. For the first three games Goolagong was loose and she lost only two points. Then, as Evert began to bear down, Evonne's confidence seemed to ebb and she made mistakes. Evert won the first set 6-4, but in the next her concentration appeared to wander, and Goolagong, who has to get to the net to be effective, began to do so. "She was breaking up my pace with lots of slices and spins," said Evert later. "She had the right idea."
In the third set, the effect of the novocaine that had been injected into Goolagong's left foot was beginning to wear off, and instead of sitting down to rest at the changeovers, she stood in front of her chair, moving her feet in small patterns to keep them warm. She broke Even's serve in the fifth game; Evert broke back in the sixth and Goolagong broke again in the seventh. As they changed courts the umpire announced the score, "Goolagong leads, five games to three," and the crowd cheered. "Everything's normal," Evert had said the day before, after her 6-3, 6-2 win over Billie Jean King. "They're cheering my opponents again."
In the final game, with the score 5-4 and the points at 30-30, Goolagong moved to the net behind her serve, took a bullet of a forehand that came straight at her body and turned it into a great backhand volley to the baseline. All Chris could do was pop it up, whereupon Evonne put it away down the left line. She failed on three match points but on the fourth it was over, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
The lifetime score in the Evert-Goolagong rivalry now stands at 18-12, Even's favor. It began in 1972 at Wimbledon, where they met in the semifinals. Each had moved into the spotlight the year before, Evert by reaching the semifinals at Forest Hills at 16, Evonne by winning at Wimbledon at 19. Goolagong won that first match in three sets. Their vintage year, however, was 1976. That year Chris won five of the seven times they met, beating Evonne both at Wimbledon (6-3, 4-6, 8-6) and at Forest Hills (6-3, 6-0). Goolagong played badly at Forest Hills. Two weeks later she learned she was pregnant, and began her year-long retirement.
For the record, the semifinal round in Boston was also a landmark, but of a different sort. It was the first time that Goolagong, Evert, King and Martina Navratilova, the best four women players in the world, had all reached the semifinals of the same tournament.
In one respect, however, the tournament was a bit of a disappointment. Navratilova, coming off eight weeks of the best tennis she has ever played and a winning streak of seven tournaments and 37 straight matches, was expected to prove, in a hoped-for confrontation with Evert in the final, whether she could continue to win when the player on the other side of the net was Evert.
Goolagong put an end to everyone's expectations by beating Navratilova 7-6, 7-6 in the semis. Moving with the grace and quickness of a cat, despite her painfully injured feet, Goolagong demoralized Martina by returning one sure Navratilova winner after another. Both sets were decided by nine-point tie breakers, the second of which went to the full count and was won with a Goolagong volley. Forty-five hundred fans went home happy that night, not realizing how truly remarkable was the match they had just watched.
Goolagong said later that she did not know whether she could have played a third set. She has been competing on a day-to-day basis for two months now. One injury to her feet has led to another, from severe blisters to a damaged arch and lately to a calcaneal bursitis at the base of her left Achilles tendon. At times, her pain has been so intense that she has been unable to sleep and twice she has had to have injections of cortisone and novocaine. Yet she has never complained nor used her injuries as an excuse for a loss. In fact, after the semifinals she said, "I get mad at my feet, and it comes out in my tennis."
Navratilova played well too, if not quite up to the level that she has shown she is capable of this winter. In this case her first serve failed her when she needed it most. "We are both aggressive players," Martina said. "It is a matter of who is better on a particular day." She even allowed herself a small but well-deserved boast. "I could have blown my cool pretty easily, but I stayed with it to the last point."
Navratilova's record-setting streak had finally been broken the week before in Dallas, not by Evert, Goolagong or King, the players she anticipated would eventually beat her, but by 15-year-old Tracy Austin in a quarterfinal match that no tennis fan in Dallas is going to forget for a long time.
Austin won the first set 6-3, Navratilova the second 6-2. The third set went to 6-6 and then into a nine-point tie breaker. Martina took the first two points, Tracy won the next four. Austin, serving for the match at 4-2, lost the point with a backhand down the line that was far wide. On the next point Austin, incredibly, came to the net behind her serve, something neither she nor anyone else would normally do against Martina Navratilova in such a situation. Austin hit a sure winner of a forehand volley down the line, but the left-handed Martina dived for it and saved the point with an astonishing forehand passing shot. Match point, 4-4. Again Tracy came to the net, and this time she caught Martina flat-footed in the ad court with a perfect cross-court volley.
Austin then beat 18-year-old Anne Smith and became the youngest player to reach the final of any women's tournament since the open tennis era began in 1968. Previously the youngest had been Evert, who was 15 years and nine months when she got to the finals of a tournament in Charlotte, N.C. in September 1970, after beating Margaret Court 7-6, 7-6 in the semis. Austin was 15 years, three months in Dallas. Just as Chris lost to Nancy Richey in the finals in 1970, Austin lost to Goolagong in Dallas, but not before taking the opening set.
Last week Tracy was back at school, and Navratilova, her equilibrium restored, was her old devastating self in the early rounds in Boston. When asked how good she thought Austin was going to be, Martina said, "She's much better than Chris was at her age, obviously. How much she's going to improve depends on a lot of things, how she can cope with the pressures. Being famous when you're 14, that's not easy."
If Tracy Austin learns to cope, a certain amount of credit will undoubtedly be due Goolagong and Evert. As role models for precocious teen-agers studying grace under pressure, they come highly recommended.
Employing a variety of slices and spins, Goolagong broke Evert's pace.
"Everything's normal," said Evert. "They're cheering my opponents."