40 years after first of 18 titles, Chris Evert returns to Roland Garros as an analyst

Saturday, May 24, 2014 | 8:53 p.m. CDT
In this June 4, 1979, file photo, Chris Evert makes a returns against Ruta Gerulaitis during the French Open in Paris. Evert won the first of her 18 career Grand Slam titles at the 1974 French Open. When this year's edition of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament begins Sunday, Evert will be on hand as a TV analyst for ESPN, watching what's become a changed brand of tennis four decades later.

PARIS — Asked whether a particular moment stands out from her run to the 1974 French Open championship, the first of her 18 career Grand Slam singles titles, Chris Evert let out a loud laugh.

"I'm embarrassed to say that my only memory is that it was my first French Open title. It's 40 years ago!" Evert said. "I did another interview and I had to ask the guy who I beat in the final."

For the record, Evert's opponent back then was Olga Morozova, and the score was 6-1, 6-2. Evert, 19 at the time, would go on to win a total of seven French Open trophies, along with six from the U.S. Open, three from Wimbledon and two from the Australian Open.

When this year's edition of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament begins Sunday, Evert will be on hand at Roland Garros as a TV analyst for ESPN, watching what's become a changed brand of tennis four decades later.

"In those days, there weren't very many clay-court players and the game was serve-and volley. Very few women knew how to play on clay because most tournaments were on grass or hard courts," Evert said. "The style sort of depends, in general, on who the No. 1 player is, and I might have started a focus on the clay-court game a little bit more. Because after me, then came the Steffi Grafs, the Monica Seleses — players who thought it was OK to get 10 or 20 balls in the court."

And now?

"Today it's a lot different," she said. "Everybody's at the baseline."

That includes Serena Williams, who is seeded No. 1 at the French Open and won it last year, more than a decade after her other championship in Paris in 2002. Another victory would give Williams 18 major titles and pull her even with Evert and her longtime rival, Martina Navratilova.

"Last year, she came into it just talking about it for months, how she hadn't won it for 10 years and that was her goal for the year. She mentioned it every tournament," Evert said. "She got that under her belt."

One stat in which Williams has a long way to go to catch Evert: Grand Slam final appearances. Williams has played in 21 title matches at major tournaments (she's 17-4), while Evert played in 34 (she was 18-16).

Evert thinks opponents would have a better chance to beat Williams — or the 2012 French Open champion, Maria Sharapova — if they tried to mix things up.

That's how Evert remembers the sport being during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when she spent 260 weeks ranked No. 1.

"We used more strategy," Evert said. "We were more thoughtful out there. We thought probably a little bit more about our opponents' weaknesses and tried to expose those weaknesses more than they do now.

"For instance, I see Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams dominating from the baseline, winning 90 percent of their matches. My question is: Where are the drop shots? Where are the short angles? Why don't more players take them out of their safety zone and force them to come into the net, where they're more vulnerable? At least just try it."

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