ON a glorious summer day, Chris Evert unintentionally made the winter of American women's tennis seem more pronounced than ever.
Under blue skies last weekend, as Evert was ushered into the hallowed halls of the International Tennis Hall of Fame by former President Bush, attention was drawn to the top players in the women's world rankings:
Where have all the Americans gone? At No. 7, Lindsay Davenport is the United States' top-ranked woman, followed by Mary Joe Fernandez and Chanda Rubin. Zina Garrison-Jackson and Lori McNeil are winding down their tennis careers.
This is an unpleasant situation for a country used to a parade of tennis icons that include Evert, Billie Jean King, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver, and a transplanted Martina Navratilova. (Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati flickered briefly, but brightly.)
Evert is confident that American prominence will return. ''When you hit the low point, the only way you go next is up,'' she said at a press conference prior to her enshrinement.
Her predictions rest on the efforts by the United States Tennis Association to promote the game at the grass roots, especially the 120 training centers that have been established. Another effort, the USTA Schools Program begun in 1984, introduces tennis to children through their school physical education classes and after-school programs. The USTA claims a network of 20,000 schools and a participation of almost 5 million children annually.
American fans may have to wait a long time for a tennis phenomenon of Evert's caliber, however. In a career that spanned two decades, Evert collected 157 singles titles, 18 Grand Slam championships, made 52 semifinals in 56 Grand Slam appearances, was ranked no lower than No. 4 in 18 years as a professional, served nine terms as president of the Women's Tennis Association, promoted the game and herself, and was crowd-friendly and well-behaved.
She won these credentials with tennis as her fourth priority: ''First was family,'' she says, ''second was religion, and third, school.''
Evert is now married to former US Olympic skier Andy Mill and has ''a full-time job'' caring for her two young sons. She is also a commentator for NBC Sports and has a tennis tournament named after her.
What does she think her legacy will be? ''I hope it's that I helped the notion that it's OK for a woman to be athletic,'' she says, ''to be tough, to be competitive. It has always been OK for men to be those things, but it's not until the last 20 years or so that it's been OK for a woman to be those things.''
Clad in a raspberry dress and a smile to match, Evert said, ''I'd like to say to little girls all over the world, 'Pursue your dream.' I wasn't the best athlete. I wasn't the fastest, or the quickest. But I wanted it badly enough to make it happen.''
Until the next train of American-talent arrives on the world circuit, Christine Marie Evert's dossier of achievements will be a touchstone.