Seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert, one of the most formidable clay-court players in history, recently spoke with ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford to share her thoughts on how Roland Garros is shaping up, along with a wide variety of other topics.
Bonnie D. Ford: Since we last talked, the two Serbian women, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, have emerged. They were both semifinalists at the French last year. How close do you think they are to winning the French, or another Slam?
Chris Evert: I like Jankovic's style, and her movement on the clay is a little bit better. They're both on the cusp and if it doesn't happen at the French, it'll happen at Wimbledon, and if it doesn't happen at Wimbledon, it'll happen at the U.S. Open. I think they're both primed to win a Grand Slam eventually. Jankovic, with her mobility and sliding on the clay, I see her as having a better chance for this year's French Open. She certainly has the game and she's got that extra something on clay, that fire and athleticism. If either one breaks through, I would think she's the one -- but I could be completely wrong.
Serena [Williams] has had a resurgence in her game and she's talking like she's really pumped up about the year.
Ford: What about Maria Sharapova? She's someone who everyone has discounted on clay forever, but she made the semis last year and won an event on the green clay this season. This would be a career Slam for her if she's able to win. Can she contend for the title this year?
Evert: You can't count her out. Mentally, she plays the big points as well if not better than any of the top players. I think she would be one of the top five contenders. I just don't think Maria, mobility-wise, is as flexible as the others. [Clay] also defuses her strength, which is power. The other players have one or two extra seconds to retrieve those balls she hits that would be winners on a grass court or a fast hard court. If you can get her on the defensive with drop shots or angles, that's when she's at her most vulnerable. You can expose that on a clay court better than any other surface.
Ford: Back to Serena for a minute -- she's a former champion of this event. The last couple of years, people have dismissed her on clay mainly because of fitness issues.
Evert: But she moves so beautifully. That's the difference. She's got the power but moves better. I don't think her movement has been questioned as much as her injuries and her patience and her fitness -- as in, will she last three three-set matches in a row. This year her fitness has gone up a level. She admits it, and I can hear in her voice in her press conferences that she's excited about playing again. She has to work a little harder on the clay and she's not going to get as many free points. She's got to be fit. But I see everything this year pointing towards her having a successful French Open.
Ford: What do you make of Roger Federer's season so far?
Evert: He just didn't have the time to really train hard. The illness had something to do with it. But if you look at past records, very often champions have a great four or five years and then they have a flat year. Players now know how to play them, they're not intimidated by them, they're not new any more and they have a couple losses and they don't believe in themselves as much. It's a normal kind of development when you're watching a No. 1 player. Any sort of adversity like this makes you take stock of your career and your game. OK, I've got to change a few things. Now that game isn't enough to dominate any more. So what do you do? You go into the gym, you work harder on coming to the net, you make some little changes, not major changes but little adjustments in your game. Since he hasn't had a successful first four months of the year, maybe he will peak in the summer. Maybe he'll use it to his advantage. He's human and it was bound to happen sooner or later. He wasn't fit at the beginning of year, and that's where he usually likes to make a strong stand and that sets the tone for the whole year. He's going to have to step it up for the summer.
Ford: Do you think working with Jose Higueras will help along those lines?
Evert: If nothing else, for motivation. Jose was a great clay-court player. I just don't know if there have to be as many changes physically as just mentally and in motivation. Federer, if he's going to do well this summer, he needs to want it even more than before. That desire has to come back again in greater force than it has in the past.
Ford: The U.S. Tennis Association just announced they're ratchetting up the budget and formalizing the structure for the Elite Player Development Program, and obviously the Evert Academy in Boca Raton (Fla.) is the base and a big part of that. Patrick McEnroe was named director of the program. It strikes me as ironic that the Everts and the McEnroes -- two families who grew their own champions -- are now in charge of an academy-based program. Can you bring any of that family approach to what you're doing?
Evert: What we've done is tweaked the image of the academy to be more like the way we grew up. It's not a factory. We're bringing the family in. The dynamics of the family with the coaches and players is just as important as what we're teaching them technique-wise. At our academy, the families come and they watch the kids and afterwards everyone's in a group environment. We do not alienate parents. A lot of academies don't even let them watch. They don't let them on the court. Plus we're stressing education. We're very much into the whole person, the whole human being. We recommend that kids stay in school, whether it's an online school or the school across the street. We're thinking of the welfare of the child, the dynamics of the family, putting that into the equation and not just trying to produce great tennis players.
Patrick is so knowledgeable and yet so low-key about it. If I were growing up I would have loved to have had him be my coach. I have a lot of respect for the knowledge he has about tennis.
One thing the USTA never did before is use the resources of past champions and they're going out of their way to do it now. That's only going to help the kids.
Ford: There's also going to be an effort to try to get different academies to cooperate, maybe have the juniors play each other more. But these are for-profit businesses that compete against each other for talent. Is it realistic to think they would cooperate?
Evert: If they really want what's good for the welfare of American tennis they should be involved. I personally don't see what the problem is.
Ford: Do you think tennis belongs in the Olympics?
Evert: I didn't grow up with tennis in the Olympics. I played one Olympics in Seoul, and I didn't feel like part of it at all. I was busy watching everybody else, Flo-Jo and Carl Lewis and the gymnasts. The day before I played, I was so excited. Then I went out and played Raffaella Reggi at about 9:30 in the morning with about 50 people watching and I lost my [Round of 16] match. I couldn't get psyched up. My Olympics were Grand Slams. That still means more.
Ford: Are you surprised at how well Lindsay Davenport has done, coming back after becoming a mom?
Evert: I am surprised. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was thinking, I won't go back on the tour but I'd love to play team tennis, still dabble, play some exhibitions, this and that. Once I laid eyes on Alex [Evert's oldest son], all those thoughts went out the window. I never ever wanted to set foot on a court again competitively. I'm amazed that emotionally she can do both, and I'm very happy for her that she's been able to do it and do it this well. Evonne [Goolagong] did it and Margaret Court did it, but Yvonne was so happy-go-lucky, it was easier for her. Lindsay is a very conscientious and practical person and I'm just amazed at how well she's been able to balance it.
Ford: How are your boys doing? What are they into these days?
Evert: They all love dirt biking. They do it every weekend. They love the X-Games sports -- skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross. All three are on the tennis team, the 11-year-old on the middle school team and the 13- and 16-year-olds on the high school team. And they like tennis, they like it very much, but they don't love it. They like the dangerous sports better. Their dad was an Olympic skier, so he's got that streak in him, the risk-taking streak. I'm more conservative. They want to go-go-go.
Ford: Congratulations on your engagement to Greg Norman. Saw you attended a PGA event with him recently. Have you taken up golf yet?
Evert: Not yet. With three boys and Greg and a tennis academy, I really don't have any time. Golf is so time-consuming if you want to do it right. Greg, on the other hand, has started playing tennis and he's doing great, but you only have to play an hour a day to get good at tennis.
Ford: Is there the possibility of a doubles team, for charity events maybe?
Evert: [Laughing] No. I would advise against husband-and-wife doubles. That could create problems in the future. He's a good athlete though, he loves it. Loves the game.
Ford: Chris, there was a controversy earlier this year -- Richard Williams made some comments and you were included in those [at a tournament in India, Williams said his daughters were still not "accepted by tennis" and referred to Evert and Tracy Austin as "little white no-good trashers.''] I know your history with the family is a bit complicated, but did that bother you, or did you try to tune it out?
Evert: This is my history with the family. When Venus was, like, 9 years old, her father called my dad and said, "Could we come to your house, Venus would love to see Chrissie's trophies." She came to the house with Richard, walked around, looked at my trophies, had her picture taken with my Wimbledon trophy. The first year I had my Pro Celebrity [charity event], I invited Venus and Serena to play, they were like 9 and 11 and nobody knew of them. They came and they played a little exhibition.
They went on to be No. 1 in the world. Then when Serena was having some difficulty with her tennis and that beautiful game she has and her dominance, I wrote that letter, one of my columns in Tennis Magazine. I thought I was very positive in that article, encouraging her to dedicate herself and be the player she was meant to be, and all her other interests could wait a few years, and sometimes you have to devote yourself if you want to be No. 1. You could be the best player who ever lived. Everybody was rooting for her. I don't think they took it that way.
As far as Richard, the quotes, I don't know what to say. I kind of feel sorry for him if he is that angry and bitter about tennis players and about white tennis players. When people lash out like that, they must be miserable people. I'm not going to compound it. I think it's unacceptable. If my parents had come out with quotes like that, I think people would make a bigger deal about it. He has a history of saying things that are unacceptable. And I don't really think many people in tennis listen to him anymore. So if I make a stink about it, it's just going to draw attention to it. That's why I didn't say anything.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.