Chris Evert Lloyd: still improving after all these years

Here's some disquieting news for the rest of the women on the pro tennis tour: Chris Evert Lloyd still isn't satisfied with her game after all these years, and she fully expects it to get better.

''Sometimes I ask myself why I'm still out there,'' the sport's No. 1 female player said in reply to the inevitable question about what worlds she has left to conquer. ''I think more than winning one more title, even one more Wimbledon or US Open, it's the fact that I feel I haven't really reached my peak yet.

''Certain aspects of my game may be all the way there - like my ground strokes and my concentration,'' she said in a recent interview. ''But you have to be more versatile and well-rounded today.

''I've got to work on my serve and be more aggressive. I know I still have weaknesses in those areas, and that I can get better. I don't want to retire, look back, and see that I didn't reach my full potential -- that I was only 70 percent or so of what I could have been.''

Chris noted that whereas she has had success on every surface over the years, she's had more on clay than anything else.

''I'd like to play just as well on fast surfaces,'' she said. ''I know I can't just dream about it. It's not going to be handed to me. I've got to put in the hours in practice, and I have to try things in actual play - especially when I have easy matches, so it will become more natural in the important ones.''

When Chris first burst upon the scene as a 16-year-old prodigy reaching the semifinals at the 1971 US Open, her success at such a young age caused quite a sensation. There had been other teen-age whizzes from time to time, to be sure, but usually they were a bit older than 16, and in any case the whole syndrome was still pretty much of a novelty.

Today, on the other hand, every time one turns around there seems to be a newer and even younger star on the rise: Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver, Andrea Jaeger, now Kathy Rinaldi, and tomorrow undoubtedly some other 16-, or 15-, or maybe even 14-year old phenom. Why?

''Even as recently as 10 years ago, women athletes were still regarded as freaks by a lot of people,'' Evert Lloyd recalled. ''It was nothing like today when they're looked up to and admired.''

But do today's young players also work harder than they did in Chris's girlhood days?

''I trained four hours a day when I was young,'' she said. ''And luckily I lived in Florida, where I could practice 12 months a year. I think I trained just as much as today's young kids do. But maybe I was an exception.''

Another big change in the decade that Evert Lloyd has been at center court has been in the area of sportsmanship and decorum -- more, perhaps, among the men, but nowadays to a distressing extent among some female pros too.

''Yes, I saw it happen before my own eyes,'' she said. ''I saw the gentlemen -- the Lavers, Rosewalls, and Newcombes -- gradually fade out, and a new breed like Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Vitas Gerulaitis start to take over.

''I think things were given to them a little too easily. Things have also come more easily for the women lately -- and we have some spoiled ones too these days.''

''Also, there's a lot of emphasis on being No. 1 in this country. If you don't win, they don't care if you're second or 200th.''

Evert Lloyd's career is pretty well known -- especially such highlights as her three Wimbledon championships, five US Open titles, and those incredible 125 consecutive match victories on clay from 1973 through 1979 -- but still some of the overall statistics boggle the mind. Her career totals, for instance, show 110 victories in 186 tournament appearances, while her won-lost record in matches is 808-76 for a phenomenal .914 winning percentage. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world five times in the last seven years, and second the other two, and is estimated to have earned more than $8 million dollars from all sources since turning pro in 1972.

And she still expects to get better!

Physically, she says, she is in better shape at age 27 than she was 10 years ago. Mentally it's tougher (''I can't play tennis 12 months any more without getting stale and bored''), but she is solving that problem by curtailing her schedule. Meanwhile she feels that her experience is a positive factor - especially when she faces any of the younger stars.

''I have to feel when I'm up against somebody like Andrea or Tracy or Kathy that I have the upper hand,'' she said. ''In a way it's easier when you're young because you don't feel as much pressure. But experience is so important - especially when you get in a tough match and you know you have pulled out so many of them before.''

Ever since her marriage to British tennis player John Lloyd three years ago, Chris has seemed a happier, more fulfilled person. On the court, meanwhile, she has benefitted both from his moral support and the hours they've spent practicing together.

''If you practice with somebody better than you, it raises the level of your game,'' she said. ''It's tough for a top woman player to find other women to practice with, so I think playing with John has definitely helped me. But I probably hurt his game.

''On the whole subject of women vs. men in tennis, Chris is strictly a realist.''

They have more speed and strength; it's as simple as that,'' she said. ''I look down that list and I don't see anybody in the top 300 I think I could beat. It doesn't bother me at all. I'm not built like them. If I were built like Bjorn Borg, I'd want to be able to beat him. But I'm not.''

Evert Lloyd is playing in very few regular weekly tour events this year. She is trying to select appearances that will keep her from getting stale. But she is also planning her calendar in a way that will enable her to be at her husband's side while he makes a concerted effort to move up in the men's rankings.

''I'm a pro player, but I'm also a wife, and I have responsibilities,'' she said. ''John has supported me; now I'm supporting him.''

The plan, says John, is to give it a full shot in 1982 and then evaluate the situation.

''My goal is to get out of the qualifying,'' he said. ''I want to give myself a full opportunity, like 25 tournaments or so. If I do that and still don't make it, maybe somebody is trying to tell me I should be in something else.''

And what about Chris? Is it possible that before too long she will be ''in something else'' -- like raising a family -- and perhaps out of tennis? Or might she, like Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong before her, try to combine the two careers?

''I don't think there's any way I could do that,'' she said. ''I'm the kind of person who devotes herself completely to one thing at a time. A child would consume so much emotional and physical effort. I don't see how I could do that and be competitive on the court too.

''With Evonne it's different. She has her husband around to help, while John has his own career as a pro player on the circuit. Also, she is a natural athlete. Her game is pretty much all instinct and athletic skill, so the mental part isn't quite so big for her. But I'm different. I've had to work at it. It didn't come that easily to me.''

So does she think about retirement sometimes?

''I'm not putting any timetable on it,'' she said. ''I just take it one year at a time - which is the same thing I've been doing since I was 18. But I do think about it a lot now. You do get used to this life, you know. I don't want to just wash dishes.

''I'd want to keep a foot in the door some way - maybe coach, help junior players, do TV work. I'd hope to continue with endorsements of products I've used. And I might try to do something in fashions. I think one way I've helped the women's game is in putting pretty outfits back on the court, because the game is part entertainment, you know.

''I'm not talking about a career to replace tennis. Nothing could do that. But I would try to stay in the game some way.''

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