Imagine an unknown American 15-year-old playing Serena Williams – the best women’s tennis player in the game – at a tournament in Charlotte.
Then imagine the 15-year-old winning the match.
That’s basically what happened in Charlotte in September 1970, when 15-year-old Chris Evert got a late invitation to come to the Queen City to play at a tournament at Olde Providence Racquet Club where she would face Margaret Court.
“I’ll never forget Charlotte – or that win,” Evert told me decades later.
In terms of talent, Court was Serena back then. Court won all four Grand Slam singles tournaments that year, so she was at her absolute physical peak. She was clearly the No. 1 player in the world.
Evert was the best 16-and-under player in America, but few people outside of the junior tennis subculture had heard of her. She had grown up learning the game in Florida under the tutelage of her father, Jimmy Evert, a teaching pro who made her go to bed on weeknights at 10. And she had already begun to refine the deadly two-handed backhand that would be her signature shot.
It was a small tournament. Evert’s first match at Olde Providence was a quarterfinal against Francoise Durr. Durr was one of the best clay-court players in the world – and Evert shocked her, 6-1, 6-0.
“Chris, a high school sophomore, stands 5-3 and weighs only 98 pounds,” noted The Charlotte Observer.
“I just played over my head, that’s all,” Evert told the newspaper that day.
The next day was even more startling. In front of a crowd of 3,500 at Olde Providence, Court advanced to the net on nearly every point – and Evert knocked forehands and backhands right past her on many of those forays. Evert won, 7-6, 7-6.
The first sentence of the Observer’s game story on the win the next day: “Yes, it really did happen.”
The writer also referred to Evert as a “pretty little 98-pound non-weakling.”
Evert burst into tears of joy after the match and then called her father, yelling into the phone: “Daddy! I won!”
The next day Evert’s unlikely run ended, as she lost to Nancy Richey, 6-4, 6-1, in the tournament final.
Still, Evert told me once many years later that the win over Court remained one of most significant of her career. It made her understand she could play with the best women in the world. Evert, who is part of ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage this week, would go on to win 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
And if you want to feel old, consider this:
Chris Evert is now 60.