I could see the sparkle even without my binoculars.
I could see it even though I was sitting in the balcony.
Every time Chris Evert went through her slow-motion serve, her engagement ring hung off her left hand and made me wonder if the weight might not throw off her toss.
I was watching the 1988 Virginia Slims of Chicago tennis tournament at the UIC Pavilion, an event that may well have marked Evert’s last appearance in Chicago. It was the first time in seven years that the Wheaties-box star has played here, and by her own admission 1989 could be her last year in the game. The 34-year-old has a life with her new husband, Andy Mill, a former Olympic skier, waiting for her when she’s ready to hang up the racket for the last time.
Chicago tennis fans turned out in record numbers to see the mid-November tournament. The largest audience for a tennis match in the Pavilion’s history, 8,304 fans, filled all but a handful of the arena’s seats for the semifinal, which had Evert playing Bulgaria’s Manuela Maleeva and Martina Navratilova against Czechoslovakia’s Helena Sukova. Evert won 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, while Navratilova, who’s 32, won 6-4, 6-3, so the two old ladies could have at each other for the umpteenth time in the final.
For the final, only 7,214 showed up, which promoters attribute to the fact that the match coincided with the Bears knocking heads with the defending Superbowl champion Washington Redskins. The final wasn’t much of a show anyway; it took Navratilova little more than an hour to finish off Evert. 6-2, 6-2.
But in Evert and Maleeva’s semifinal the crowd got pure tennis at its best: two baseline players hitting in long, nail-biting rallies, the ball failing within the lines by fractions of inches on all sides. None of the slam-bam serve and volley Navratilova is famous for. Plus, an apparent added attraction, at least for those of us with binoculars, was trying to pick out Evert’s husband, who reportedly was courtside.
I adjusted the focus and watched both players carefully. I longed to have Evert’s pinpoint control, and both players’ power to send the ball at top speed the full length of the court.
But then again, tilting the binoculars downward, I decided I’d rather have a chip off the old rock.