Tennis Legend Chris Evert: Women In Sports 'Aren't Second-Class Citizens Anymore'

How the Tennis Hall of Famer made it happen

Across various industries and worlds, there's a goal that's easily translatable: to excel. Great achievement—won through dedicated work and a determination to improve—has been associated with Rolex for generations, making the brand's collaboration with ambassadors from a range of fields feel right. In an ongoing partnership with Rolex, ELLE explores the journeys of these exceptional women.

After nearly a decade on the court, Chris Evert lost a tennis match against one of the top players in the world in 1968. Like most teenagers—Evert was 13 at the time—she got a little competitive. She would take down the world's number one player before her 16th birthday.


Many know that the American athlete went on to become one of the world's greatest tennis players. But aside from holding the sport's number one ranking for seven years, Evert was the first female athlete to earn $1 million in prize money, the first female athlete to host Saturday Night Live, and her winning record (1,309 wins and 146 losses) is the best in pro tennis history, placing Evert's story among those that have helped change the narrative about women in sports.

Nothing about her career is low-key. So her utter dominance is even more remarkable when you hear how she describes herself as a young competitor: "I wasn't anything special, athletically. Trust me." The message she wants the incoming class of female athletes to hear? "You don't have to be the strongest, you don't have to be the fastest," she says. "I made it happen because I was mentally tough, and I worked hard. Anyone can be a champion."

On learning the game at five years old:

"I was five years old when I picked up my first racquet. My father put it in my hands because he was a teaching tennis pro at the time. He's the one who got me and all five of the children in the family started. In the beginning, I was very resentful: He'd take me away from my friend's house—where I would go swimming and have barbeques—over to Holiday Park, a public tennis court, and throw balls to me out of a shopping trolley. So I was very upset."

On developing a competitive edge:

"All the kids in my family had a lot of talent. It was just a matter of some of them being more social than I was and some of them being more academic than I was, so they didn't devote one hundred per cent of their life to tennis. I was the only one that did that. And I was a perfectionist—I didn't like to lose. The more I competed, the more fired up I got."

On realising that she could go pro:

"When I was 13 years old, I played in a professional tournament and I lost in the semi-finals to a woman, who was ranked number 10 in the world. I lost three sets but I won one, and I remember thinking, I'm 13 and that wasn't that tough. That's when the seed was planted."

On her breakout moment:

"I was 15 when the world came to the realisation that there's this little girl in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and she just beat the number one player in the world. Everyone started to pay more attention to me—players I looked up to. They were my idols when I was growing up. So I knew I had arrived."

We were fighting for women's tennis and for equal rights. It was a shared mission. We had to have everybody on the same page if we were going to be shooting for the stars.


On dealing with media scrutiny as a young athlete:

"Whenever you're dubbed an image, it's like a pigeonhole and people expect you to behave accordingly. During my teenage years, I was quiet and shy, so I wasn't going to become loud and obnoxious. The media called me Little Miss Icicle, or Little Miss Ice Maiden because I didn't show emotion on the court. So wherever I went, I was Little Miss Ice Maiden. It kind of stunts your growth a little bit when you're young. That happens to a lot of people who are young and famous. It's not a healthy environment at all."

On how she achieved tennis' best win-loss record:

"I never celebrated my wins. I'd win a tournament, and I'd be happy, go to dinner. But the next day would be just another day. I would go from Wimbledon to Seattle, Washington, and play a smaller tournament, and I'd try to put the same attitude into Seattle as I did Wimbledon. I just focused on what I was doing at the moment."

I've seen some huge changes. Women tennis players are getting equal prize money, and we're being treated as a big commodity. We're not second-class citizens anymore.

On the camaraderie shared by female athletes:

"We had a united front because we were fighting for women's tennis and for equal rights. So we formed good relationships and friendships. It was a shared mission and we had to stick together. We had to have everybody on the same page if we were going to be shooting for the stars."

On seeing the sport evolve:

"In the '70s, women tennis players were getting ten per cent of what the men were getting as far as prize money, and now we're getting a hundred percent. Two women walked off the court when they found out that they were getting $1,500 and their male counterparts were getting $15,000. I was 14 or 15 when I read about it and thought, 'Whoa, that's pretty gutsy for her to walk off the court'. I didn't even blink an eye at the inequality. I was a little protected Catholic girl. My mom took care of the home. That was the way I was brought up. I've seen some huge changes since then. We're getting equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, and we're being treated as a big commodity. We're not second-class citizens anymore."

On joining the Rolex family:

"I feel honoured to be a part of such an elite group of champions. When I think of Rolex, they have the same characteristics as champions: timelessness, versatility, integrity and grace. It's perfection. I know it's special to be a part of the group."

On her proudest accomplishment outside of tennis:

"Off the court, it's having kids—you know, my boys. When I retired, my goal was just to have children. I think that was an accomplishment and a challenge at the same time."

On reaching the number one spot in her career:

"It just motivates you to just keep doing more. You get kind of greedy and you don't want to stop there. When you do something really, really well, you appreciate it, and you want to keep doing it.You want to keep going. Why not? It's a great life."

Stylist: Isabel Dupre

Makeup Artist: Violette

Hair Stylist: Yannick D'Is

Manicurist: Alicia Torello

From: Elle
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