NEW YORK — Chris Evert expects new mom Serena Williams will eclipse the Grand Slam record of 24 singles titles, maybe even this season.
The former No. 1 tennis player also says the name of current record-holder Margaret Court should remain on the arena at the Australian Open despite her controversial views on LGBT rights.
“I don’t agree with Margaret and her thinking,” said the ESPN analyst and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. “I think it honors her tennis career.”
Williams restarts her tennis career on the WTA tour next week with 23 major titles. She’ll play an exhibition match Monday night at Madison Square Garden in New York, then compete at Indian Wells, California, in her first tour event in more than a year.
Williams dealt with serious health issues after the birth of her first child in September and missed the first major in January.
But the 36-year-old Williams has been winning majors at a swift clip. Williams passed Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 at the 2015 Australian Open, and won four more majors in the next three years.
Evert thinks Williams will win at least one Grand Slam title this season.
“I just cannot bet against her,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press. “I’d be surprised if she won two; I would bet on her to win one.”
Evert knows a bit about records. Raised in a tennis family and taught by her father Jimmy in Florida, she turned pro at 17 in 1972 and promptly earned the No. 1 ranking two years later after winning the French Open and Wimbledon.
She won a record seven French Opens and reached the semifinals or better in 52 of 56 majors. The tennis Hall of Famer won 157 singles and 32 doubles titles in an 18-year career, which spanned the eras of Billie Jean King, Navratilova and Steffi Graf.
Her career winning percentage (90 percent) is better than top-ranked Roger Federer (82 percent). It remains the highest for men or women since the Open era of professional tennis began in 1968.
Here are a few more thoughts from the 63-year-old Evert, the publisher of Tennis magazine and mother of three adult sons.
Evert says Serena’s best chance of winning more majors rests on the grass of Wimbledon.
“Who knows how she’ll come out of the starting gate,” she said. “Wimbledon, that would be her best shot because that favors power, rewards power and the rallies aren’t long. She’s got the big serve. The U.S. Open is going to be tough because it’s on a hard court, it’s hot. She’ll have to be moving well and be very, very fit.”
Incorporating tennis and family becomes the new challenge after marrying Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and giving birth to baby Olympia. He recently bought four billboards along the highway to Indian Wells that say “Greatest Momma Of All Time.”
“When you have a child, that’s an emotional component that you’ve never experienced before,” Evert said. “I keep saying this – whenever anybody doubts Serena, she thrives. That gives her more motivation, more incentive and she always comes out the winner.”
Court won 24 major singles titles from 1960-77, including 11 at the Australian Open when most players didn’t venture Down Under. She won a combined record of 64 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.
Court became an ordained Pentecostal minister in 1991 and has been a constant critic of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage in Australia. After a national referendum, the Australian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage in December.
Over the years, Court has singled out gay Australian players and Navratilova, a rival and friend of Evert. Court’s remarks last year about transgender youth upset King, who said at the recent Australian Open that Court’s name should be removed from the arena . Navratilova wrote an open letter suggesting it be renamed for Australian tennis great Evonne Goolagong.
Evert says she disagrees with Court’s opinions and believes in freedom of speech. “She goes by the bible and she’s just very rigid in that.”
Evert still hits the courts almost daily at her tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida. Madison Keys, who reached the U.S. Open final last year, and Lauren Davis, who had triple-match point on top-ranked Simona Halep at the Australian Open, came through her academy.
Evert’s proud “100 percent of the kids” who don’t turn pro earn a college tennis scholarship.
“That’s like winning Wimbledon for these kids,” she said. “That’s a wonderful goal. It’s really just fun to mentor these kids and try to help them reach their goals and their dreams.”
Known for her two-handed backhand and returning nearly every ball, Evert recently partnered with Osteo Bi-Flex to help keep up with the 14-year-olds on her practice courts.
At 36, Federer recently won the Australian Open and regained the No. 1 ranking . Evert marvels at his “frame of mind” and relatively injury-free career.
“He’s not a grinder like (Rafa) Nadal. Roger wins a lot of free points off his serve, he has shorter rallies, he glides to the ball, he doesn’t muscle anything. It’s all about timing and finesse with him.
“He’s so endearing. When he cried (after the win), I think the whole world cried along with him. He shows his emotion … that’s why people love him so much.”
Evert isn’t concerned 37-year-old Venus Williams joined several American women making early exits at the Australian Open.
“She had a big year last year – got to the finals of two majors, got to the WTA Finals. You can understand why maybe her body didn’t recover as quickly. She can still have a great year.”