Goodbye Billie Jean, with love from Nancy

After a distinguished amateur career, Billie Jean King decided to turn professional, but not before a rare meeting with her longtime rival, Nancy Richey, whose going-away present to her was a remarkable beating
April 08, 1968

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned feud, real or imagined, to bring out the best in people, athletes included. And last Friday night at New York's Madison Square Garden a good old-fashioned feud—46% real, 39% imagined and 15% no opinion—was revived in the most startling fashion. The occasion was only a semifinal match in the Garden Challenge Trophy tennis tournament, one of a dozen stops on the winterlong combined indoor-Caribbean circuit, but for all that was at stake for the antagonists, it might well have been a Wimbledon and Forest Hills final combined.

On one side of the net was Billie Jean Moffitt King, 24, the myopic pepper pot who is totally and absolutely dedicated to the proposition that Billie Jean Moffitt King is the No. 1 tennis player in the world, which she is. "You have to hate to lose," she has often said. "That's why I'm on top."

Seventy-eight feet away was Nancy Richey, 25, a firm believer in her father George's "Thou Shalt Not Smile on the Court" philosophy.

The matchup was perfect. Mrs. King is an aggressive, hard-hitting net rusher who flails away at everything within reach; Miss Richey is a grim, stubborn baseliner who ventures to the net only by accident. The two girls have been contesting the top ranking in the U.S. for four years. Nancy got it in 1964; Billie Jean in 1966-67. They drew in 1965—both were No. 1 and, as much as anything, that started the feud...er, rivalry in earnest.

All in all, the Garden confrontation would have brought back memories of the famous matches between Helen Hull Jacobs and Helen Wills Moody in the 1930s, except that, before last Friday, King and Richey hadn't been on the same court together for 3½ years.

The last time they had played was in the quarter-final round of the U.S. Nationals in September 1964, Richey winning 6-4, 6-4 for her sixth victory over Billie Jean in seven tries. Since then strange things have happened. Billie Jean is not especially fond of clay, which neutralizes her wide-open, attacking game, and she has missed several clay-court tournaments over the years. Richey, on the other hand, cares just as little for grass, or any other fast surface that doesn't give her time to clobber forehands and backhands or run down opponents' shots. Billie Jean has two Wimbledon, one U.S. and one Australian title to her credit—all on grass. Nancy has won five straight U.S. clay-court championships, but has only one grass crown—Australia in 1967—and she has refused to play the prestigious U.S. grass-court circuit. For 42 months subtle charges and countercharges have been thrown about, each accusing the other of ducking a confrontation.

The most recent came a month ago when both were scheduled to play in a weekend charity tournament at C.W. Post College on Long Island. The day before it began, Nancy called in lame. (In fairness to Miss Richey, she does have a history of ailments that would endear her to medical students, most notably a chronic bad back and a bum knee.)

And so, last Friday night, while both women denied the existence of any feud, there was a certain amount of tension when they took the court—a nice slow Richey-type rubberized one, incidentally. Their only condescension to femininity were the tiny blue pompons Billie Jean wore on the backs of her sneakers and the orange headband that Nancy wore instead of her traditional Australian flop hat. Otherwise the two of them might as well have walked two blocks to the west and enacted a teminine version of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Billie Jean started as though that was exactly what she had in mind. She won the first set 6-4, and then, while exhorting herself loudly to bigger and greater things, built up a commanding 5-1 lead in the second. Miss Richey broke her service in the next game and held her own to cut the margin to 5-3, but it seemed like a token effort. With Mrs. King serving the ninth game, they played to deuce and finally to match point for Billie Jean.

Then it happened. After a short rally, Mrs. King took the net and Miss Richey sent up a very average lob, which should have meant the end of the match. But Billie Jean hit it just a fraction of a second too late and it landed a foot behind the baseline. That brought the score to deuce and started Nancy on one of the most startling streaks of her—or anyone's—career. From there, the two girls played 51 points, and Billie Jean won just 12 of them. Miss Richey reeled off nine straight games in addition to the three she had already won to take the match in a fantastic reversal of form, 4-6, 7-5, 6-0. Billie Jean had not lost 12 straight games since she forsook a promising sandlot football career for the tennis courts.

On match point, Nancy passed Billie Jean with a low cross-court backhand; when it landed in, she threw her racket nearly to the Garden ceiling. Billie Jean tapped her lightly—yes, lightly—on the head with her steel racket. Then Nancy permitted herself a slight smile, and in her soft Texas twang said, "This is my most satisfying win."

In a way, it was a shame Billie Jean had to lose. The match was her last as an amateur player. Three days later in Los Angeles she signed a two-year contract with the National Tennis League, the latest in the long line of touring professional groups, this one to be run by former Davis Cup Captain George MacCall. Joining Billie Jean in the pro ranks are Ann Haydon Jones of Britain, Françoise Durr of France and Rosemary Casals of the U.S., making it the first wholesale desertion of the amateur ranks by women in the history of tennis.

MacCall died a little when Mrs. King was beaten by Miss Richey (who then defeated Judy Tegart of Australia for the women's title the next night), but that was nothing compared to his reaction on Saturday when Roy Emerson of Australia, who was playing his last amateur tournament and was also preparing to sign with MacCall, lost to Lieut. Arthur Ashe in the men's final in three straight sets. Even more than Billie Jean, Emerson deserved to go out a winner. (Emerson's defection, incidentally, means that five of the 1967 Top Ten men amateurs are now professionals. In December, John Newcombe and Tony Roche of Australia, Nicki Pilic of Yugoslavia and Roger Taylor of Great Britain signed with a rival group, the so-called "Handsome Eight," run with Lamar Hunt's money. The four girl professionals were also Top Tenners.)

Both Emerson and Mrs. King were anxious to turn pro. Emerson is 31 years old, ancient by tennis standards, and takes with him the most prolific major-tournament record in tennis history. He has won 12 of the so-called Big Four championships—two each at Wimbledon, Roland Garros in France and Forest Hills, and a whopping six in Australia. Bill Tilden, the greatest player in history, won 10—seven at Forest Hills and three at Wimbledon. Emerson is probably the most gracious champion since Don Budge, and certainly the funniest. He played the Garden tournament in the same pair of shorts he has worn for three years—all the pockets are worn out and sewn tight. This was his first tournament of note since the Davis Cup Challenge Round three months ago, which he played in for the ninth time, and when he learned there was no trophy for second place at the Garden, all he said was, "My God, all I've got to show for this week is a bloody pair of sore feet. That might be my last trophy for some time."

Billie Jean, who has opinions on just about everything and who is a longtime advocate of open tennis (which the International Lawn Tennis Federation finally accepted last week), was, despite her loss to Miss Richey, ecstatic about the professionals. "The amateur game is completely filled with hypocrisy," she said. "What they ought to do is throw out all the officials and start again. It's a burden to play amateur tennis. I quit college three years ago to be No. 1—I knew I couldn't do it any other way. I made it, but what do I get? I came home last year after winning Wimbledon and somebody asked if I played Davis Cup.

"I can't even get a credit card. How can I tell them I've got a job. I do now; I'm just going to make more as a pro. The only reason we can get credit cards is because they presume my husband [Larry, a law student at the University of California] is going to make a bundle later on."

Now that she is a pro, and presumably about to make a bundle, Jean should have no more problem securing credit cards. But she would probably trade the lot of them for another chance at that easy overhead at match point with Nancy Richey.

PHOTOMISS RICHEY HAD A GOING-AWAY GIFT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)