Evert: ‘Breaks Have Been Good For Serena's Longevity’


121142727It’s been half a decade since Chris Evert penned her controversial “Dear Serena” letter — an open-air plea urging Serena Williams not to fall short of her GrafNavratilova-like potential.  It was May 2006, and Williams, seven Slams into a surefire Hall of Fame career, was in a rut. She seemed distracted, out of sorts, caught up in seemingly frivolous (at least to us tennis junkies) off-court activities.  Her body was breaking down.  Slowed by knee injuries, she had failed to qualify for the 2005 WTA Championships and finished outside the top 10 for the first time in seven years.  She subsequently withdrew from tournaments in Tokyo, Dubai and Key Biscayne citing her fitness (or the lack thereof). By April 2006, she was out of the top 100 and would miss both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

She would play just four tournaments all year.

At first, it seemed out of place for Evert to lecture Williams in the public forum of a Tennis magazine editorial.  Who was she to tell Williams, who had undergone a movie-script Compton-to-Champion transformation, how to live her life?   But the 18-time Grand Slam titlist was only saying what everyone else was thinking: Hey, Serena, put all these outside distractions aside, buckle down and make the most of your career.  Act now before it’s too late.

“Something is troubling me,” wrote Evert.  “Do you ever consider your place in history? Is it something you care about? In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis. Because whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy.”

“Why not dedicate yourself entirely for the next five years and see what you can achieve?” Evert asked.  “Just remember that you have in front of you an opportunity of the rarest kind — to become the greatest ever at something. I hope you make the most of it.”

Fast forward five years and Williams, who recently returned from a yearlong layoff, has bypassed mentor Billie Jean King on the all-time honor roll and now has 13 Slams to her credit.  All along, she’s seemingly managed to dip in and out of the tour calendar at her whim.  But even Evert now admits the very thing that looked as if it might tarnish her legacy could be the reason Williams remains the tour’s most indomitable force.

“Because she’s had so many breaks and so many rests, she’s probably fresher than anybody else right now,” said Evert, who’ll serve as an ESPN analyst during the upcoming U.S. Open.  “She’s probably playing like a 25-year-old who’s played seven years on the tour.  So she could even keep going.  It’s too bad for the women’s circuit that she has to pull out a lot, but it’s good for her longevity.”

Evert, who once called on Williams to rededicate herself, now admits that Serena may just have had the last laugh.

“I’ve often thought that,” she told Inside Tennis.  “Yeah, she’s had the last laugh.  Plus she’s been able to do all her business ventures, make a lot of money, supposedly gone to school, online classes, and then had fun in the process.  She lives in L.A.  She has her Hollywood friends.  I mean, this is a woman who is living a full life, who is very multi-dimensional.”

“It wasn’t because of the letter, but I think she did buckle down after that period because I think things were starting to get a little bit out of her control,” Evert added.  “That was a period where she was getting injured, then she was doing business deals.  She was losing in the first and second rounds of tournaments.  That should never happen to somebody like Serena Williams.  She should have had more pride in that, her performances, and she’s a better player than that.  But I think she did buckle down and she had a couple, three solid years after that.  I honestly did think it put, with everyone saying the same thing, a seed in her mind and she committed herself a little bit more after that.”

When IT asked Evert, when all is said and done, if Serena’s numbers will be where they should be, she said, “The big question is: How long is she going to play?  If she plays a solid five more years, healthy and commits herself, she deserves those numbers.  But if she would retire right now at 13, I would say she deserved to have won more.”