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Chris Evert played tennis with a patience that’s in current demand



Lord knows, you need patience right now. Patience with the dime-store elastic biting into your ears from the homemade bandanna mask. Patience with the detergent tang of cleansers in your membranes. What you need to handle all of that is not just patience, but Evert’s particular, stalking brand of it and what it teaches: Patience isn’t complacent. It’s commanding.

“Patience is reflected in your attitude and actions,” Evert says by phone after you call her up to ask if you could borrow some of hers. “Because you have so much time, what do you do with that time?” she asks rhetorically. “You think. You learn. A person’s qualities as they go through a peak moment like this defines us.”

It’s a form of character, is what she’s saying. And character at the moment is sorely lacking in some quarters, you may observe. Patience, after all, is the capacity to cope with trouble with equanimity and to turn events in your favor. It’s seldom talked about among the government power brokers, the ultracompetitive and the hyper-achieving anymore, because it’s not the noisiest quality.

No athlete ever used patience like Evert or made it look more authoritative: Her 1,309 wins to just 146 losses yield a lifetime winning percentage of .900, the best in Open era history, man or woman. The French Open, where she played some of her greatest matches, would have begun next week, and to watch her in the inevitable classic highlight packages is to be reminded of what Bruce Lee once said: “Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is concentrated strength.”

No one plays like her anymore. No one. You hate to pit one era against another, but the fact is, Evert’s precision-strike tennis is a lot more gripping than much of what you watch today. It’s with a shock that you realize how her game stands up visually to the modern eye and satisfies something you didn’t quite know you wanted.

Watch her. Watch how she could put the ball anyplace with her racket — and disguise it. Watch how she redirects, changes pace, lulls opponents, wrong-foots them, inside-outs them, until they discover she gradually has moved them, drawn them in, and then . . . blam, drives the hell out of the ball. In the last game of the epic final of the 1985 French Open against Martina Navratilova, all she does is roll a lob winner, saw a forehand winner pass and then slug a two-fisted backhand pass up the line to seal it. Just because she was patient, see, didn’t mean she was a mere pusher of the ball. She played like she had a blade in her hand.

But there’s never an erratic moment. That’s the thing that slakes you. She exudes all of the judgment and deliberation you’re missing right now.

There’s never a rash shot, never an uncontrolled blast. Or a self-pitying bleat of wounded ego, either. There’s just … mastery. And isn’t that what you want in a pandemic?

There is an organization to her that you pine for. Watch her footwork, so good that she always seems early to the ball. She somehow has more time than the other player. “I never wanted to be the one on the run,” she says. She almost never is.

“There was a drip, drip, drip to her shots,” commentator and former player Mary Carillo says. “By the time she hit a clean winner, she had taken legs out of her opponent, managed the court better and opened up the angles. Three shots earlier, she had pulled a babe out of position.”

Of course, to play that way required sustained concentration. It required thought and study and endless schooling. The patience started long before, on the practice court with her father, Jimmy, where she learned that strange, perfect attentiveness to every ball that seemed like almost a stillness. “Racket back, turn sideways, step in when you hit the ball,” he said. He taught her to hate unforced errors. They would drill for hours, until her body turn was perfect and her strokes were like beautiful structures, architecture.

There were losses, long skeins of them. That’s when she showed her patience most. She lost 20 of 23 matches to Navratilova in one stretch. Yet she kept working the problem. Power never really conquered her: Her career took off with a defeat of Margaret Court and ended with one over Monica Seles, a straight-sets smearing in which she sent winners like ribbons to all angles of the court. That’s how you cope with a threat: with an expertise that you’ve earned over years.

Watch her. Watch her calm, masked demeanor as her opponents’ emotions gust around her. Watch her purposefulness as their shots become more lashing and they break down.

“The whole idea of any sport boils down to creating a sense of emergency in your opponent,” Carillo observes. “Patience can create that sense of emergency. Chris’s patience created a sense of, ‘Guess what? I own this.’ Patience was on her side, because everyone else at a certain point was panicking. And she was going nowhere.”

Panic and emergency seem all around right now. It’s a time of unforced errors, recklessness, squandered points, botched charts and chaotically bad decisions that seem like blasted balls in the bottom of the net by shortcutters who haven’t done the work and thus lack all composure.

Some people, of course, have every right to be impatient, even desperate, during this pandemic and pause: the small business owner, the furloughed, the unemployed. But the rest of us have no excuse; it’s simply a trial of temperament, and a revealing one.

“Life is stopped,” Evert says. “And it’s a time to think about the things we’ve been avoiding. Things we should be thinking of. We should be getting more clarity. People have a lot of time to, again, think and reevaluate priorities. It’s a gut check.”

You need patience for that. Patience with the arrogantia who walk around with their mouths uncovered because they think nothing bad can happen in a latte line, thus delaying your city’s reopening. Patience with the victory of fiction over science in daily briefings. Someday, the shutdown will end, and our games will resume at least partly, and so will our lives. Athletes will get back on the court, back in the pool. People will return to their offices, to their keyboards, shovels, tools.

“You’d better believe,” Carillo observes, “that the persons who have spent the time patiently taking care of themselves, patiently staying fit, patiently doing all of the invisible work, those are the ones who are going to show up.”

It will be revealed, in due time, who lacked that patience. And who found a little inner Evert in themselves.

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