John Lloyd will never be able to look at Wimbledon’s honours roll of ladies’ singles champions in quite the same way again. Since the tournament’s inception, custom has dictated that married female winners are identified by both the initials and surnames of their husbands. As such, for 41 years, his former wife Chris Evert has found her 1981 triumph inscribed on the famous green board under his name. “Mrs JM Lloyd,” he smiles. “I have taken a few guests to Wimbledon and shown them that, saying, ‘Look, basically, I’ve won a singles title.’”
It was a precious ego trip for Lloyd, who, during his eight-year marriage to one of the most celebrated sportswomen on the planet, grew accustomed to being introduced in American restaurants as “Mr Evert”. But this month, the Lloyd name will disappear, making way for “CM Evert”, as she is engraved for her other two Wimbledon glories in 1974 and 1976, prior to their wedding. It represents one more victory, perhaps, for modernity over tradition. Except if you ask Lloyd to compare his era with the remorseless hamster wheel of today’s tour, he suggests that there is no contest.
“The players make more money now, but I don’t know if they have as much fun as we did,” he says. “My meal of choice the night before a match would be steak, medium-well, with French fries, washed down with a couple of Cokes.”
Dating, a favourite pastime of Lloyd’s during his youth, was also far less strewn with obstacles. At 67, he owes his renown as the BBC’s stalwart colour commentator and emblem of British tennis’ Lloyd dynasty, alongside elder brother David, Davis Cup captain-turned-entrepreneur, and nephew Scott, chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association. But he was once known primarily for his paramours, who by the late Seventies had included Swedish starlet Isabelle Larsson, actress Susan George, not to mention the Oscar-nominated Valerie Perrine. Nothing catapulted him so decisively into the celebrity realm, though, as his relationship with Evert.
“These days you have an entourage to knot through,” Lloyd says. “It’s not easy to ask a girl for a date if she has her mother, trainer and psychologist there. How do you get past that barrier? I managed it by chance. I had always fancied Chris but I didn’t really know her. It took a mutual friend to approach me in the Wimbledon tea room and say to me, twice in the space of five minutes, ‘Why don’t you ask her out?’”
Evert accepted Lloyd’s invitation, although there was one problem: both were in the middle of Wimbledon. Still, the pair had the luxury of living in more innocent times. In 1978, a British No 1 and a then seven-time major champion could arrange an evening rendezvous in Hyde Park without worrying about paparazzi behind the nearest tree. “That was a high-profile two weeks, and we somehow got away with it without anybody knowing,” Lloyd reflects. “Almost every night.”
He has just published a memoir devoting an entire chapter to his life as Evert’s partner. While he is keen not to exaggerate his role in her performances on court, he is adamant that her defeat in the ’78 final to Martina Navratilova owed much to their flourishing romance. “I know Martina’s going to give me s--- at Wimbledon, because in essence I say she owes her first title to me. But I know Chris, and for her to go out before a final was not her normal thing. We were falling for each other, and I don’t think her mind was the usual steel trap it was when she played Martina.”
Lloyd saw Evert’s competitive intensity at the closest quarters. After she succumbed to Evonne Goolagong in the 1980 Wimbledon final, she refused to speak to him for almost the entire flight back to Miami, saying only: “I don’t ever want to lose to her again.” The mystery, perhaps, is why such single-mindedness could not be emulated by Lloyd himself. He was a striking natural talent, runner-up at the 1977 Australian Open and just one of six British players in the past half-century to reach a slam final. But he concedes, having written a series of letters to his younger self for his book, that a propensity towards indolence held him back.
“After Australia, John Barrett, my mentor and the BBC’s voice of Wimbledon, told me, ‘There are two ways you can go now. You have jumped up the rankings and are making a lot of money. You can either take the next step and work harder – or ease back the throttle and enjoy what you’ve achieved.’ I chose the latter.”
Success in the Lloyd-Evert household proved to be anything but mutually reinforcing. While Evert forged a path to an all-time women’s record of 34 major finals, her husband fell to 17 first-round defeats in 18 tournaments. “There were a lot of times when my effort wasn’t as good as it should have been,” he acknowledges. “I was making extremely good money and married to someone extremely wealthy.”
It is Lloyd’s contention that the couple, who divorced in 1987 after four years living essentially separate lives, married a decade too soon. But he cannot deny the pain at realising their union was doomed, having read a report on tour in New Zealand that Evert was having an affair with the British pop star Adam Faith. “It still came as a shock,” he says. “Faith was a big name but he wasn’t a close friend. I didn’t think there was any chance of it, and back then I couldn’t go on the internet to suss it out. I called Chris that night, saying, ‘Can you believe it, they’ve put this in the National Enquirer.’ She denied it. Neither of us were saints in the marriage.”
For somebody who learned tennis by batting a ball against a coal shed wall in Leigh-on-Sea, Lloyd has long found himself drawn to the company of A-listers. In the Eighties, he would practise in Beverly Hills against Dustin Hoffman – a rampant egotist, in his depiction, convinced that he could beat Steffi Graf – and swing by the Texas ranch of country icon Kenny Rogers for a basketball session alongside Michael Jordan. Of late, his most memorable encounters have been with a certain Donald Trump.
Having reinvented himself, post-tennis, as an international estate agent in Florida, Lloyd lives close to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s opulent retreat in Palm Beach. When they first met there, Trump greeted him extravagantly as “the great John Lloyd, winner of three grand slam titles”. It was a compliment by which Lloyd felt flattered: while he had never advanced beyond the third round at Wimbledon in singles, he won two mixed doubles titles, with Australia’s Wendy Turnbull, and another at the French Open.
“I had a chat with Trump three days ago,” he says. “A few months ago, an ex-tennis pro who plays golf with Trump a couple of times a week, asked me: ‘What do you think about giving some tennis lessons at Mar-a-Lago?’ He has got four clay courts there now, but it’s $400,000 (£318,000) a year to be a member. I replied I wouldn’t mind doing a bit. Sure enough, my friend calls and announces, ‘Someone wants to speak to you.’ The former president says, ‘John, great idea.’ You can be the celebrity coach. So, here’s the deal. Why don’t you charge 500 bucks an hour and I’ll take 250.’”
Lloyd does little to disguise the fact that he likes Trump, problematic though this might be among his personal network. “Whenever I post pictures of the president on Instagram,” he writes in Dear John, “my left-wing friends in Los Angeles don’t like it and give me stick.” Not that Trump is the only polarising figure to whom Lloyd is sympathetic. At Wimbledon, he is about to be struck by the conspicuous absence of Boris Becker, sentenced in April to 30 months in prison after concealing £2.5 million of assets and loans to avoid paying his debts.
“It’s an absolute shocker,” Lloyd acknowledges. “He gave me his condo in Palm Springs when my family came over for my daughter’s wedding. I never talked to him about this side of things. At this age, all we talk about is injuries. I wish I had been close enough to ask, ‘What the hell’s going on, Boris?’”
Then again, Lloyd has been preoccupied with his own battles in recent years. Not only has he come through treatment for prostate cancer, he has also helped steer his son Aiden through rehabilitation for drug addiction. It will be a relief this summer, in many ways, for him to return to Wimbledon, critical though he is of the event’s decision to ban all Russian and Belarusian players over the war in Ukraine. “It’s a slippery slope,” he argues. “What happens if tournaments decide they don’t like the human rights in other countries?”
And yet, for all its faults, the members’ balcony on Centre Court is his one reassuringly familiar sanctuary – even if his first wife’s place on the honours board is no longer his to share.
Dear John, The John Lloyd Autobiography, Pitch Publishing, is out now.