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Chris's retirement keeps the rest of us employed

"I don't enjoy winning, and I don't enjoy losing. I just don't enjoy playing any more." Nobody ever expected to hear these words from the primly determined lips of Chris Evert -- least of all of the age of 25.

She has been called a "Tennis Machine" -- the female athlete as computer. Coached by her teaching- pro father from the age of six, she was, it seemed, programmed to win.

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"Enjoy" or not "enjoy" -- what did that have to do with it? From her earliest pictures with a racquet, Chris's face looked as expressionless as a baby Buddha, showing neither pleasure nor disappointment -- only concentration.

At a time when people -- above all, women -- were letting it all hang out, she remained inscrutable. "The Ice Maiden" the sports writers dubbed her.

Now Chris Evert has done a very emotional thing: she has retired. And the people who, for almost ten years, explained her so patly as Total Competitor now have equally pat explanations for why she has done what they would never, never have predicted -- dropped out.

First, the Evert-explainers have resorted to a favorite concept of the sportswriter -- pride. Chris has been soundly beaten for nearly a year now by Martina Navratilova and, worse, by teen-ager Tracy Austin. Pride will not allow this woman, number one for so long, to stumble along as number three. Or so we are suddenly being told.

When any championship athlete retires, pride is the standard all-purpose explanation, and it half-works at 35. But at 25? In the case of an athlete in her prime, the proud-exit theory just will not hold, even for sports fans, who tend to favor a single explanation for everything almost as much as politicians.

A backup story clearly is necessary, and the Evert- explainers have one. Chris's marriage to the British tennis player John Lloyd, it is said, has broken her concentration as nobody on court ever could.

Nothing survives like a cliche. Having implied for a decade that Chris became a champion because she was an incomplete human being with her heart in deep freeze, the Evert-explainers now stand the cliche on its head and argue that she must inevitably lose tennis matches because she has, at last, become human.

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Would anybody, since the days of Samson, dare offer the same explanation for the decline of a male athlete?

Furthermore, nobody who has seen Chris Evert off the court, even if only during the formality of a postmatch interview, could ever think of her as "Ice Maiden." She is a warm conspicuously intelligent, and rather witty young woman who brings a lot more to life than a two-fisted backhand.

Why do we prefer our Evert-explanations, with their neat labels and tidy taglines, to the complicated person herself? Is it because what she tells us finally is that winning has not been enough?

This is a truism we are terribly fond of preaching to sports figures. But when the sports figures turn around and not only preach the message but dramatize it for us, we become confused and terrified. If Chris Evert Lloyd can walk away from all that, what does it say about our lives?

When we tut-tut piously that winning is becoming too important in sports, we imply that this obsession may creep corruptingly into everyday life. Are the facts the other way around? Has the obsession with being number one moved from everyday life into sports? Is Chris Evert Lloyd retiring, at least for the moment, from more than just tennis?

Our urgent need to explain it all suggests we are trying to explain things to ourselves rather than to her.

In retirement Chris Evert has baffled us, as she has always baffled her opponents.


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