Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - U Tennis: The Little Ice Woman
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U Tennis: The Little Ice Woman 02/20/2009 - 4:56 PM

Writers are always talking about great words—"'Satanic,' such a great word!" we might say. There’s little agreement on what this means, or what raises one word above the masses. But each of us has our pet favorites. They either roll off our tongues in just the right way or shock our brains with their pungency—malevolence fits both of these bills for me. Other words just make us happy when we hear them—like, say, knucklehead. A favorite word from tennis is junkballer. It’s dismissive in a respectful kind of way.

Friday sounds bland by comparison, but it occupies a special place in the brains of English speakers. It’s the anticipation in those two syllables that raises it above its fellow days of the week; even “Saturday” doesn’t have the same sense of relief to it. It might be all right for fighting, but I've still got Friday on my mind. It's the day when you can be half at work and half somewhere else in your head. I was a copywriter at an ad agency for a year or so in the 1990s, and my only good memory of that time was sitting in the boss’s office on Friday afternoons with the other guys in our department while he cranked a Lou Reed CD and did a crazy spinning dance in his suit in the middle of the room. Still, there’s a downside to this half-freedom: In winter, when it gets dark before I leave the office, I can start to get a mysterious case of the blues—“loose ends” is the right phrase. My mind isn’t quite ready for the transition.

Anyway, for some reason Friday seems like a good day to revive the You Tube tennis tradition we started last winter—it’s easy, it’s fun, it apolitical. Plus, there are always a few new things up there that you haven’t seen before.

I’ll start with a clip that I’d always wanted to see: 16-year-old Chris Evert making her U.S. Open debut at Forest Hills in 1971. This was when the legend of the Ice Maiden and Chris America was born, and the moment that women’s pro tennis became a viable mainstream product in this country. It was once said of Bruce Springsteen that if he hadn’t existed, rock critics would have had to make him up. You could say the same for Chris Evert: If she hadn’t come along at just about this time, the women’s tour, and in particular Billie Jean King, would have had to make her up. As it was, King had to beat Evert in the semifinals, a match that King said was the most nerve-wracking she had ever played.

This 10-minute clip covers the most famous part of Evert’s run, the six match points she saved en route to beating fellow American Mary-Anne Eisel in the third round. (Warning, a bow-tied and woolly Bud Collins also makes a brief appearance at the 7-minute mark.). After reading about this tournament for many years, here are some thoughts on seeing it.

—The first U.S. Open match I remember watching was the 1976 final between Connors and Borg. At that point, Forest Hills had torn up its grass and put down clay—clearly another case of New York’s mid-70s socialism and anti-Americanism! So it’s nice to see the green grass as it was. Is it lusher than Wimbledon’s? It’s a different shade, certainly.

—Everyone in those days was annoyed by Bud Collins as an announcer, but he seems pretty good here. Yes, he’s overbearing and maybe even too full of information—is it helpful or just pedantic that he tells us the name of the center linesman? But nobody expressed more enthusiasm for tennis. At this point, he hasn’t quite found the right nickname for Evert. He calls her the “Little Ice Woman” during this match. I guess it was better than one of his later ones for her: “Hatchet Woman.”

—Evert’s poise is remarkable, though she does show little moments of frustration, slapping her thigh after one miss. She seems determined, but not too determined. Her desire to win never upsets her calmness. Up 3-0 in the tiebreaker, she looks across the net and puts her finger on her chin, the picture of cool assessment. Or maybe her chin just itched.

—Love her returns. She has great anticipation and quick reaction steps, and she lays her racquet back smoothly on both sides. I doubt she would have time to do that now.

—I’ve never seen Eisel before, but I like her serve and athleticism. She’s a broken woman by the end of the tiebreaker and goes on to lose the third set 6-1.

—Evert said in her autobiography—yes, I’ve read it, what about it?—that she always played the same way until the match was over and tried her best to approach match points against her as if they were any other point. But I sense here that she went for broke on her returns on the first two match points. And she was lucky when Eisel stoned a makeable volley wide on another one. Still, Evert made her play that volley.

—Evert wins the second set and shows . . . nothing. Maybe even less than when she was behind.

—The strokes are so simple and clean. It’s hard to believe they hadn’t been hit quite like that before. Chrissie Evert: The world’s quietest revolutionary.

Have a good weekend.


Posted by Eric 02/20/2009 at 05:48 PM


Posted by Eric 02/20/2009 at 05:48 PM

NICE as in first

Posted by Eric 02/20/2009 at 05:51 PM

re: Bud Collins, I'm not quite sure on what days, and in what era, he wasn't considered annoying. I'm pretty convinced that he would be an assault on general tolerance in any day or age.

Posted by lollipop 02/20/2009 at 05:55 PM

flove her. she's so calm and unmoved by all those match points! amazing:)

Posted by GeoffB 02/20/2009 at 06:03 PM

Tennis has a lot of good words like that. Junkballer and Moonballer convey a certain respect, the former more than the latter. Pusher does drip with distain. The other day, someone called me a "powerjunker", which I have to admit I kind of enjoyed.

Posted by skip1515 02/20/2009 at 06:52 PM

1. If I remember correctly – and I cannot swear that I do – Mary Ann Eisel had the exact opposite reputation than Evert as a competitor: something less than Gibraltar like.

2. Details: the red flag that was hoisted when a tiebreak was being played, Bud holding a T.A. Davis racquet when he appeared at the 7xx minute mark, Chris throwing away the 2nd ball when her first serve went in.

3. Evert was not the first player to hug the baseline (Nancy Richey?), but in this clip she's not at the net once, and Mary Ann Eisel is there virtually every point. (Bud called her by her full name virtually every time, too.) It would be an overstatement to say Evert heralded the power baseline game, but it would not be an overstatement to say that she proved the legitimacy of having rock solid groundies as 90% of your game when all the world thought that'd fail every time against a determined volleyer.

Posted by Ryan 02/20/2009 at 07:27 PM

Huh...I love Bud Collins.

Posted by Humanzee 02/20/2009 at 07:41 PM

Wonderful. I forgot how much I liked watching Chris Evert hit her backhand. Of course it's a different game now but her shots did have a great deal of grace.

I also forgot umpires used to announce double faults-- how and why did they ever stop?

Posted by Humanzee 02/20/2009 at 07:55 PM

One other thought-- it's really nice to remember what tennis was like when every point was punctuated by a self-congratulatory fist pump. The status of tennis as the gentleman's game is certainly dead, however much excitement these antics seem to provide.

Posted by richie 02/20/2009 at 08:49 PM

Steve - What a gem of a clip. At times it looked as if Evert was totally unconcerned - walking betrween points with her head down - no fist pumps here. But her strokes are classic -especially that devastating, pin-point backhand. If you were to approach on her backhand, you had better be prepared to be passed. There is such a difference between the way the game was played then and now.

Posted by Chris 02/20/2009 at 11:04 PM

Watching clips of Chris and Martina you realize they didn't have the fire-power of today's players. But God they were supreme tacticians and gorgeous to watch.

Posted by Donal 02/21/2009 at 03:06 AM

One the one hand Bud did bring a sense of occasion to post match interviews and even the players would smirk at his showboating. On the other he could be singularly annoying - he would often INSIST on pronouncing the names of the European players with an affected quasi-foreign accent. "NO-votna serving to Shteffi"

Posted by luxsword 02/21/2009 at 04:07 AM

"it’s easy, it’s fun, it apolitical"

Posted by misael 02/21/2009 at 10:01 AM

The reason I begame a Tennis fan , was because of Chrissie, She was fun to watch,and a total class act.Thank You for the great clip.

Posted by Mark 02/21/2009 at 02:58 PM

Has there ever been a time when Bud Collins was not annoying? I'm sorry, but I don't want to hear about the 1940 Champion of a given grand slam right after Serena won her 10th slam title. Hey Bud, No one cares!

Posted by Dropshot Dragon 02/21/2009 at 05:57 PM

Chrissie was amazing. What is that stat- 13 straight years with atleast 1 slam a year? The more I think about that, the more I believe that has got to be the single most astounding stat in tennis. Followed by Federer's 19 slam semis.

Posted by Diane 02/21/2009 at 07:04 PM

Thanks for showing this. It shows exactly why I have been a fan of hers for many decades.

Posted by roGER 02/21/2009 at 09:57 PM

It's Anne Jones (nee Haydon) doing the colour commentary with Bud.

She's a lovely person but she can be pretty annoying at times too ;-)

Posted by skip1515 02/21/2009 at 10:09 PM

Hey Mark, I agree that Bud can be over the top at times. Maybe even way too often. But I care about tennis' history before today's twenty-somethings were born, and I suspect others do, too.

You could go on a meth-fueled 10 year binge of 24/7 tennis and not come close to seeing as much as Bud has. You don't have to like him to respect what he knows.

And on top of that he has a gold ball, and that's pretty cool.

Posted by birdielane 02/22/2009 at 01:54 AM

I thought Sampras pioneered the 'reverse forehand'...But in this clip...I noticed Chris did it a few times!!...Specfically on a first serve return (but serve was out) and then on a great forehand pass.

Posted by Nancy J 02/22/2009 at 02:31 AM

Thanks for this tribute to Christine Marie Evert Lloyd Mill Norman (fill in any future husband blanks! LOL).

I first saw Chrissie when I was 10 years old when she played the US Open at Forest Hills in 1971. It was a life changing event for me. The Evert kid beating up or hanging in there on "old ladies" of the sport. Yeah, I kinda had heard of Maureen doing the same, but that was years before I was born. Chris and Evonne were the kids of my generation.

The next year when Chrissie played Evonne at Wimbledon meant even more. Especially for those of us in the black community, Evonne a "black" player against Chrissie, the tough young American white player. I was the only one of 10 people in my household rooting for Chris, but I "knew" I KNEW this girl was going to be something.

Today, Chrissie receives so much less respect than she deserves. My favorite matches with Chris are not even the ones that she won. 1976 LA VS Championships she lost to Evonne Goolagong, yet she showed heart and an athletic prowess that she rarely gets credit for. WTT where Chris shined. 1981 US Opens semis. Chris is beating Martina Navratilova. Throwing down passing shots not before even dreamed of. Then, a fight takes place in the stands. The cops storm in and Chris unravels. The beginning in some ways of the rise of Mighty Mart?! And showing that Chris's private life would be in a sense her undoing for several years...

Fast forward. Houston 1987. Evert back from a long vacation (and divorce) that the result of a knee and foot injuries (and a personal life coming to head). She beat Mighty Mart. She still could play this game -- even at what is an advanced age for a tennis player. Wimbledon semis 1987, then Wimbledon 1988 -- two of the finest matches EVER played between Evert and Navratilova.

But Evert was losing the "eye of the snake" that she had presented for so many years. Her ferocious game patchy. Great sometimes, and getting eaten alive by the power of the youngster Graf at others. Her best matches were still against Martina, but in all her best behind her.

Again, in recent years I feel that Chris has not gotten her just due. She is the best American born player of the open era, yet something about her is ripe to insults and criticism. Perhaps because of a Tennis Mag op ed where Chris MEANT to show love to Serena Williams, but it came out wrong to certain people (including Serena)...

Most anyone who was there back then knew what Chris meant to the pro game. She was the most popular player as I recall from articles at the time. Be it men's or women's tennis. Billie Jean/Gladys Heldman/the sisterhood of 9 -- built the car of women's pro tennis, but they needed a young driver to take the wheel. The young person with the strength and determination and character to do it -- Christine Marie Evert.

Posted by Bob 02/22/2009 at 02:50 AM

Very enjoyable, though my eyes aren't good enough to see the ball. There has never been a female tennis player with the class that Chris Evert displayed, and she displays it here as a 16 year old. She would lose a slam final to Martina, and smile and trot to the net, to seem happy for her opponent.

This was tennis and sports back then. No toweling. No delaying. No big grimacing, fist-pumping, or grunting. No delays. No showmanship. TV would hate it these days. The wild showmanship is what they love to focus on, and even claim that it somehow makes the player better, and "fires her up". A calm, courteous player like Evert would be described as having "negative body language" by some announcers, not displaying "passion" and a "dominating attitude".

The purest example of the athletic ideals I grew up watching and admiring is near the end of that ESPN show about the 1958 Colts-Giants game, often billed as the greatest football game ever played, all factors considered. It's the last play of the game, for the NFL championship, sudden death. We had lots of drama in that game, and great play. Everyone knew it was a huge game. Johnny UNitas hands the ball off to Alan Ameche, who thunders into the end zone and history. Unitas watches him cross the goal line, and then turns his head towards the bench and walks slowly in that direction. That was his individual response to this immense accomplishment which he was so instrumental in bringing about. I remember watching that game, and so many others.

Jim Brown would make incredible runs, and then just drop the ball in the end zone. It was a team game, and the players hadn't much interest in glorifying themselves as individuals.

ESPN was instrumental in changing that, and now most player snd fans love to see it. The player's reaction to the tennis has become nearly as important as the tennis, certainly to many announcers.

I was such a huge fan of Chris, and part of that was the way she reacted to the game. Or failed to react. The actual play of the points was everything then. It still is, to me, since it's the only important thing.

Posted by Tennis Observer 02/23/2009 at 11:57 AM

Is this slow motion replay or they really just walking around and hit 30mph shots?

Posted by Evert4Life 02/23/2009 at 02:01 PM

Cheers to Nancy J for writing a great post. Like her, I feel Evert's legacy has been overshadowed through time in favor of other players who may have had a more white-hot run for briefer periods of time. So often the debate over "Best Ever" really becomes more of a discussion of "Most Dominant Ever". Sure, Martina and Graf deserve their place amongst the greats, but, to start the "best ever" discussions with those two as the defacto top names is ridiculous.

I think that Evert deserves just as much credit to be at the top of the list as anyone. After all, she has the highest pure winning percentage of any player- male or female- to ever to walk onto the pro tour. How much more dominant can you be? So, here come the criticisms over the fact that she didn't have a weapon (Graf forehand) or the athleticsm (Navratilova) or the other players, but, she still managed to finish with a better record than either of them. I would argue too, that Evert had a tougher road in her career playing and succeeding against multiple generations. Even Martina didn't really come into full bloom as a player until AFTER the King, Goolagong, Wade, Court eras. As for Graf, well, we all know what happened to Seles and how that padded the Graf resume in absolutely mind-boggling ways.

Consider too, that Evert didn't play the type of schedule that today's players many years did she skip the Aussie all together in favor of Christmas with her family? Don't forget too that she skipped THREE French Opens during the mid-70's because of the Team Tennis mess. Those we the SAME three years where she was ranked #1 and enjoying her 125 match winning streak on clay. So, by even conservative measure, had she played a true 4 slam per year schedule during her peak, she would have amassed 21-23 Grand Slams EASILY. After all, consistency- more than ANYTHING- truly defines the career of Evert: never ranked outside the top 4 in the world over 18 years, 13 consecutive years with at least 1 Grand Slam title, a 197-1 record on clay in the 70's, reaching the semi's or better in all but 4-5 of the Grand Slams she ever played, an overall win/loss ratio of NINETY PERCENT....these are numbers that Graf, Navratilova, King....NOBODY can touch and I seriously doubt anyone will ever again. Everybody tends to look at periods of dominance to define the best player (like we are now with Federer), but, a player's greatness must be measured by their full body of work. Martina took 4-5 years to get her act together and become a force on tour- same thing for Federer and Graf. Evert showed up and was already dominant and in form. That's why, 30 years removed, you can almost hardly tell when she was truly at her peak...which, in the end, I think works against her.

Tennis will never see another complete champion like Evert. The record, the grace, the incredible technical skills, the 8 or so years that she gave back by serving as President of the Player's Council, etc, etc. LONG LIVE CHRISSIE!!!!

Posted by Bob 02/23/2009 at 02:03 PM

Tennis was certainly slower, and some of the stars back then would have no chance in today's game, because they weren't fast enough, or big enough. Laver was only 5'8", and would have no chance in the modern game.

It was however a beautiful game to watch, slow enough that all-court tennis dominated the sport on the "faster" surfaces, with the exception of Evert. Three of the slams were on grass, so tennis played at that level was nothing like what the average person played.

Evert, Connors, and Borg brought the two-handed backhand into style, and that changed tennis forever. Borg and Connors were fast enough to have been greats in any era, and though not large like today's top players, they were not small. Connors was still capable of beating players like Edberg when Stefan was #1, and Jimmy was getting old.

It's a new era now, and we'll never see another one-handed backhand at the top of tennis, or even in the top 10 for women. It's possible that Federer could get back to the top, since he only served at about 50% at the AO, and still went five sets, but he's getting old, and Nadal has finally found his peak. These may be the two greatest players in history. They are in my book, in terms of talent.

Tennis was very enjoyable to watch back then. Players like Goolagong were graceful and terrific shotmakers, with time to get to balls and display their variety and talent. These days it's a pure power game, off both sides, and there is no variety in the women's game. Just a big serve, then hard shots with medium topspin, one after another, until one player mishits and gives up a short ball, or hits it out. You can see the winners coming well before they are hit, and they are nearly all the same. I still love the men's game, since that is truly powerful tennis, and they do have much more variety, but have lost interest in the women's game, to some extent.

In older days, it was much slower, but the shotmaking variety and skills were very enjoyable to watch.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/23/2009 at 09:19 PM

I should add, that the wood rackets basically accounted for the entire speed differential. Many players played right through the transition.

I also believe, although there is no way to quantify this, thas pre-1990 audio technology greatly diminishes the perceived power of the shots.

Watch some old Laver video on youtube with no sound, then play the Federer/Sampras match, also with no sound.

A difference, yes, but the modern match seems to also slow down. At least to me.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/23/2009 at 09:26 PM

Having witnessed firsthand the game's first phenom of the Open Era, Christine Evert, play on the grass courts of Orange, New Jersey, just a month before her 1971 U.S. Open debut, I became an avid fan of hers. Still, a part of me remained ambivalent about the style she employed. And here, in the clip Steve provides above, we can see in part why I could never quite embrace her game, all the while embracing the woman. She serves as if she had no natural rhythm and no real intention of doing anything more with it than putting it safely in the box. Of course, in her later years she developed quite a decent serve, and some shoulder muscles to go with it.

I loved the 9-point tiebreak, which I believe was an invention of James Van Allen, who also gave us the no-ad scoring, or VASSS (Van Allen Simplified Scoring System). It truly was sudden death, not like today's 12-point and more tiebreaks. I can only hope that one day the riuling bodies will see fit to bring it back.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/23/2009 at 09:38 PM

As always, Bob and Dunlop make some great points.

Personally, I donm't think we've seem the nd of the one-handed backhand. I think the pendulum continues to swing in tennis, as far as ploaying styles goes. We'll see serve-and-volley practitioners again, and we'll see dominant players with one-handed backhands. We may never see a true continental forehand again, at least that isn't a squash shot or a slice approach or a volley, but I believe the court is stil big enough to allow for craft and finesse and accurate shotmaking.

It does, I must admit, seem that the players could have been much more aggressive with their feet. On several points in the clip, Evert could have stepped forwrad and caught the ball on the rise, taking time away from Eisel. Instead, she waited for the ball with her racquet back. On this score, I do believe tennis has evolved tremendously, and with positive results for the players and the spectators.

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