Sporting Life: In Chris Evert's time, water was drunk from ball cans and one racket lasted an entire tournament

If you want to walk down the lanes of history, you get a legend as a guide. If you want to appreciate how far women's tennis has come, you hitch a ride with a champion in her time machine.

Someone like her, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, who was the first woman to ever win the WTA Finals, then called the Virginia Slims Championships, in 1972.

Someone like Chris Evert.

Someone to remind us that the WTA Finals wasn't always manicures in the players' lounge, tickets to the Backstreet Boys and Porsches to drive you to the official hotel, which of course is free.

Today the WTA Finals champion is going to earn US$2,207,000 (S$3,012,810) while in 1972 the total prize money was US$100,000. Evert, 62, paid for her own hotels in those days and can't even remember the size of the cheque she got for winning. It was a long time ago when Elvis was still singing and Marlon Brando was mumbling in The Godfather.

You can't tell progress till you travel backwards. You can't appreciate the modern idea of entourages, travelling coaches and hitting partners, till Evert tells you about her first French Open final.

"Martina (Navratilova) and I, in our first French Open final (1975), warmed up together. And then had lunch together. And then played a match against each other. And I remember Martina, when we warmed up, she was serving and I was returning, and she goes, 'Do you want any more serves, Chris?' "

"Yes," Evert remembers telling Navratilova, "could you serve a few more wide to my backhand so I can practise that. She said, 'Okay'. She did whatever I asked her to do and vice versa.

"And then we had lunch. We had roast chicken, I will never forget that." And then they fought for a Grand Slam title.

Young tennis players, who don't know these stories, might grow up thinking it was always like this: Fancy sports drinks at changeovers. New shoes whenever you want. Chairs to sit on with ballkids standing behind and holding umbrellas. Like ladies at some garden party.

But not in those early days, not for Evert. Did you even have chairs at changeovers?

"No, no, unbelievable. I don't know... what were we thinking. You got to rest." She pauses and says incredulously: "Didn't have a chair!"

Were you told that water causes bloating?

"Oh ya, ya, ya. My dad (coach Jimmy Evert) used to tell me, 'Don't drink too much water'. And we used to drink it out of tennis ball cans. Not even rinse them out, just put the water in and drink it."

By now Evert is gaily surfing down the shorelines of her memory, sitting on a Singapore couch but travelling into the early 1970s when they didn't just play in rougher conditions but also evidently had tougher bladders. Or as she says: "I never ever went off the court for a bathroom break in my 18-year career. How do you like that stat? That's better than any of my tennis stats."

One of the nicest parts about this event is the invitations extended to legends because every now and then in the corridors you collide with history wearing a little make-up. These are the epic ladies, the record-book writers, quicker with their smiles now but still armed with ego, stocked with stories and putting the present in perspective.

So Chris, physios on court in your time, carrying gauze and dental floss?

"No, no, no."

Pre-match food?

"Steak and baked potato."

Six rackets in a bag, all freshly strung in cellophane covers, to be changed at every ball change?

No way.

Evert carried three or four rackets, all strung with gut, and as she says: "I also never got my rackets restrung. It was like a novelty. None of my strings ever broke because we hit so flat. They always break with the spin. I would use one racket the whole tournament."

Time's running out, Evert has to go, but it's been a short, joyous ride into the past. Only when you listen to their lives do you understand the rapid creep of science, the progress in equipment and the fortune - and entitlement - of present players.

And by the way Chris, the winner's prize money in 1972 when you won the Finals, we checked it out. It was US$25,000. Only US$2,182,000 less than today.