Evert holds court with awed tennis fans for free | AspenTimes.com

Evert holds court with awed tennis fans for free

Nate Peterson

Tennis great Chris Evert works with Allegra Tillman, 9, during a clinic Saturday at the Aspen Tennis Club.Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

The trademark two-handed backhand. The magazine-cover smile that won over America. The steadfast competitive drive.They were all on display Saturday at the Aspen Tennis Club, where Chris Evert, the winningest pro tennis player in history, held a free two-hour clinic for children and adults for the fourth year in a row.”I love helping people,” said a gassed Evert afterward. “I had a lot of fun. It’s easy for me to tell them the basics. I see what they’re doing wrong and get them back to the basics and see that improvement.”The clinic was followed by a hitting demonstration by Evert with local pro Randy Crawford, Evert’s sister Clare and Laura Gordon, the former Aspen High state champion who will finish up her college career at UCLA this year. Evert, who has spent her summers in Aspen for the last 18 years, is a staple on the public courts in the summer playing with her sister and Gordon, whom Clare has coached since high school.Surveying the crowd of amateurs who showed up Saturday to hit balls with a living legend, it was apparent that Evert wasn’t the only one enjoying herself as she bounced from court to court giving instruction.After the demonstration, Evert offered up one final chance for those in attendance to hit with her – giving everyone at least 10 balls apiece. For those who grew up idolizing the dynamic pro from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – winner of 18 career Grand Slam singles titles in her 18-year career – fantasy camp was definitely in session. Some grown men and women actually darted out of their seats to take their spot in line across the net.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime,” said Karen Eilenstine of Parker, who was visiting Aspen this week and heard about the free clinic. “I wasn’t nervous. I was just trying to hit the ball hard.”Evert was her typical self throughout the clinic and then the demo – infectiously energetic while she yelled commands, a bit humorous at times whenever someone laced a ball right back at her, continually striving to get the best out of her pupils.Eilenstine said that energy was the “boost” she needed to get her game back on track, after not playing as well as expected at some of the seniors tournaments she competes in throughout the year.”It makes you want to get back in shape,” she said.There was something for everyone, it seemed. Aspen locals Gunnar Ohlson, 11, and Eli Alpern, 10, were born after Evert had already retired from the pro circuit, but they still understood the significance of getting to learn from a Hall-of-Famer.”We definitely got better,” Ohlson said.

Added Alpern, “Chris Evert is just so much fun. She helped me improve on my backhand a little bit.”Alex Duhl, 14, and Sophie Bressler, 14, who live in Los Angeles and New York, respectively, but summer in Aspen, also said that Evert’s tutelage was beneficial.Both said it was a little intimidating playing on the same court as her at first, but the initial shock quickly wore off.”She really helped me with my backhand,” Duhl said.Evert herself joked that most of the kids she was helping didn’t know who she was, which made for some laughable interactions.”I was helping one girl with her forehand and I took her hand and she looked at me like, ‘Mom, help. This lady is harassing me,'” Evert said, smiling.The chief organizer of the clinic was Aspen High tennis coach Sherril Kerr, a close friend of the Evert sisters. Kerr was instrumental in getting the public courts built at the Aspen Golf Club in 2002 to provide a viable alternative to local players who were unable to afford a membership at one of the private facilities in the valley.

Crawford, who coached Evert’s chief rival in her pro career, Martina Navratilova, in 1987 and 1988, before becoming the head pro at the Maroon Creek Club, said the clinic was an “only in Aspen” event. He was glad to help out for the fourth straight year.”It’s very unique,” he said. “In fact, Martina is coming back into town tomorrow and she’s going to be doing a little clinic at our place. (Chris and Martina) are both just great. They know they want to give something back to the community.”Evert runs the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida in the winter with her husband, former Olympic skier and Aspen native Andy Mill. She still likes to promote public courts, however, since she grew up playing on them as a child.Her father, Jimmy, was one of the pros at Holiday Park, a public facility in Fort Lauderdale. “It was a teaching facility,” she said. “We could not afford to belong to a country club at that time. There were five kids in our family, so we’d all go over and play at the public courts. I was thrilled when Sherril got these courts over here. I think you can grow up on public courts, but then when it gets to a point where you’re going to need really professional instruction and you’re going to need to play a lot of the kids at the same level, that’s where an academy is necessary. But, if you’re just going out to play for a few hours, public courts are great.”A straight shot indeed from the mouth of a legend, especially judging by the reaction from her satisfied students for the day.New sports editor Nate Peterson can be contacted at npeterson@aspentimes.com