Center Court Is Her Domain

Billie Jean King has been queen of Wimbledon for two years. Although she says she would drop tennis if her husband insisted, she hopes she will someday be recognized as the best woman player of her time
June 23, 1968

This is the way it will be next Tuesday at Wimbledon's All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Billie Jean Moffitt King, 24, of Long Beach and Berkeley, Calif. will step onto center court for her first match to open the traditional Ladies' Day program, an honor reserved for the defending champion. That day, and for the rest of the championships, she will peer out from behind rhinestone-rimmed glasses that protect her 20/400 eyes from legal blindness. She won't be thinking about her lazy thyroid or her finicky colon, which have prompted doctors to suggest she get plenty of sleep and no tension, or even about the $80,000 contract she received for turning professional earlier this spring.

What she will be thinking about is winning. She will serve and volley well, and she will hit winners off both her forehand and backhand. And she will exhort herself by slapping her thighs, squinching up her nose and uttering things like, "You idiot!" "Hit the ball, you big chicken," "Move your feet," and "Get down, you fat little thing." (Billie Jean is 5'6" tall and weighs 140 pounds, which does not make her fat, but then she wouldn't be mistaken for Twiggy either.) And maybe if she really is moved to bigger and better verbosity she will shout, "Peanut butter and jelly!" as an errant forehand slides over the baseline. Wimbledon fans will still love her, despite the snickers, as they loved another American named John Hennessey, who, not being familiar with the niceties of royal protocol, tipped his racket and said, "Hiya, Queen," when the regal Queen Mary entered the Royal Box during the 1928 championships.

Eleven days later Billie Jean will probably win Wimbledon, in the process putting down the strongest field ever assembled for the tournament. She will have her third straight Wimbledon title, something last accomplished by Maureen Connolly in 1952-54. And most important, she will take her rightful place beside Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody and Little Mo herself.

But for a lot of reasons nobody will be really quite able to accept that, and this is something that bothers Billie Jean. She is not egoistic about it, just curious. "I don't know what it is," she said. "Even people close to me just don't believe I'm all that good." There was a time when even Bille Jean didn't believe she was all that good. In September 1964, just a few credit hours away from a Los Angeles State College degree, she suddenly crated up her textbooks, left behind her fiancé and her family and headed for Australia and three months of tennis lessons. There was nothing too peculiar about this, except that Billie Jean was already one of the world's ranking players and had captivated tennis audiences everywhere. Now she wanted to turn her whole game inside out, because she still stood one cranky forehand and a good service away from the major championships—and recognized greatness.

Billie Jean did not go quietly. To all who asked she said, "I am leaving to become the No. 1 player in the world, and I can't do that and go to school at the same time," which is not the sort of thing one generally announces from the pro shop roof. As Maureen Connolly Brinker, who was a fair player in her day, said, "To do what she did was quite a brave step on her part."

"I was scared," Billie Jean said recently of that decision. "Terrified. It's bad enough when you say to yourself you're going to be No. 1, but when you tell people, wow. You suddenly feel maybe you haven't got it. When you ask anybody if they want to be No. 1—win Wimbledon or something like that—they naturally say 'yes.' But they don't really know what it's like, and when they don't make it, it's awful."

But she believed in herself, and so did Robert Mitchell, a Melbourne tennis philanthropist who financed her three months Down Under as he had earlier helped Australians Roy Emerson and Margaret Smith. More important, Mervyn Rose, the former Aussie Davis Cup player also believed in her and offered to coach her. What it was like was eight hours a day under Rose's tutelage, when she wasn't playing in various tournaments, mainly working on her flamboyant forehand (more top spin for more control), her service (more slice for more power and variety) and her court strategy.

"At the end of each day I was physically and mentally exhausted," Billie Jean said. "The whole thing was very discouraging. I would double-fault 15 times a match with that new service and lose to just about everybody. People told me, 'Go back to your old game. You can win with it.' But Merv convinced me my game would be better."

At the end of that Australian summer Billie Jean's game was better, and instead of winning a tournament one week and losing to an unranked junior the next, she proceeded to bomb just about everybody with great regularity. The real test came later in 1965, at the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills, N.Y. In the finals she met an old nemesis, Margaret Smith, at the time the world's top-ranked woman player. Billie Jean built 5-3 leads in both sets before losing, but no matter. "After the match Margaret told me that was the best she had ever played," Billie Jean said, "and right then I knew I had it."

Until then Billie Jean was just another promising youngster, whose clawing and gutty style of play earned her the nicknames "Little Miss Moffitt" and "Jilly Bean" and the reputation of a lively firecracker who liked to go around beating hell out of her elders.

The one match that had given her this reputation was, of course, her victory over the same Margaret Smith at Wimbledon in 1962. Smith was top-seeded; Billie Jean not seeded at all. Their second-round match went late into the third set with Smith serving for the match at 5-3, 30-15. Billie Jean remembers saying something epigrammatic to herself like, "If you're gonna do anything you'd better do it now." She did. The shot was a real live all-or-nothing backhand down the line, which caught Smith with her racket down.

Smith was finished, except three games later with Billie Jean now serving for the match at 6-5, 40-love, Billie Jean double-faulted. Then a bad call moved the score to 40-30. "I've never been so nervous," she said. "When I went back to serve I believe my knees were actually knocking." She got her first service in, then faded a backhand volley down the line to win the point and match—and the hearts of the Wimbledon crowd.

Now things are different. She has two Wimbledon titles and one victory at Forest Hills, as well as just about everything else it is possible to win. She is no longer an underdog, but an established star. Therein lies the rub.

"Everybody likes an underdog," Billie Jean said. "Even at Wimbledon they're less with me now than they were in 1962. They like young, talented people, and now they like Rosie Casals. Geez, it's so strange. I can see everything that happened to me happening to her all over again. Maybe I'm getting old.

"I don't think I've changed much. But I do things now and people nudge each other and snicker and say, 'Isn't that quaint?' Well, I've always been like that. People don't understand."

Billie Jean's supremacy will be tested at Wimbledon by three old rivals, Margaret Smith Court and Maria Bueno, both of whom are in the midst of comebacks after long layoffs, and by Nancy Richey, who has now beaten Billie Jean twice in a row, most recently in the French championships two weeks ago. None of the three are convinced Billie Jean is unbeatable, even on the fast grass of Wimbledon. Bueno, 29, whom Billie Jean defeated in the 1966 Wimbledon final, said, "I do not wish to and cannot declare I am the world's best player, or that my own technique is superior. But if I didn't think I played better it would not be worthwhile competing. We shall play and we shall see."

Court, 27, was a bit softer, but not much. "Over the past seven years I've played her many times, but I wouldn't say I had some of my best matches against her—somehow the excitement of a game with, say, Bueno, was lacking. I didn't pick up a racket for 16 months before playing against her last winter [King defeated Court for the Australian title in January], so I cannot make any comparison or analysis of our games because I was not in peak form."

For the defense Maureen Connolly herself says bluntly, "Billie Jean just has to rate as the ultimate. What she has is that rare ability to rise to the necessary pressure threshold and stay there for the big ones—those moments when it's 30-all and you've missed the first serve and have to get the second one in. Billie can get it in. She gets to that finely honed point, all tuned up like a Ferrari, and she can play at that level as long as it's necessary.

"Ann Haydon Jones always gives her a tough match, but it's that big tournament edge that gives Billie the advantage. Margaret Court can be a great power player; Maria Bueno has the classic technique. Those three and Rosie Casals are real tough and have shared a lot of titles between them. But Billie's a great champion, and it means something to have come up through that pack."

And when you get there? "When you're going for the top you think that when you get there you'll be able to reach out and know more people—help them," Billie Jean said. "But it doesn't work that way. They isolate you. I want to write a book and tell people what I'm really like, not just what they see on the court. Everybody thinks I'm tough and flaky. I'm not, am I?"

Her friends might not think so, but the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, that group of crusty establishmentarians which runs tennis in this country, might be more inclined to agree.

First, in her early career she played in tennis shorts, instead of a dress, which shocked people right there. Then she chose to come up through the ranks as a Public Parks player in Long Beach, and to the Southern California establishment, especially Perry T. Jones, who ran the whole Southern California show, that was heresy. "Jones didn't actually hurt me," Billie Jean said, "but then he didn't help me very much either."

All of this was mild, however, compared to what she said when she did reach a degree of prominence. An incessant chatterbox—she will talk with anybody who will listen, whether it is during a game of darts in a London pub or just wandering through the stands after a match—she has leveled a whole bevy of blasts against the USLTA, things like:

•"They should throw out the whole bunch of them and start over again."

•"I made my living as an amateur tennis player. Now that I'm a pro I just make more money, that's all."

•"The one place I hate is Forest Hills. The officials—I don't know what it is—they seem to sit back and gloat when you lose, like they want you to lose."

Billie Jean has had no love for Forest Hills since 1966, when she learned that the umpire for her second-round match was to be Al Bumann, the Texas official who argued the USLTA into reversing itself and letting Nancy Richey share the country's No. 1 ranking with her. Failing in an attempt to get another umpire, Billie Jean became petulant, hit every shot as hard as she could and blew the match. It was not her finest hour.

Donna Floyd Fales, a close friend of Billie Jean's and former Federation Cup captain, said, "Amateur officials are often annoyed by her statements, but they also realize she is a great drawing card. She can afford to say those things—she's No. 1. Billie Jean is still very immature in many ways, and she ends up boxing herself in by making impulsive and poorly considered statements. Hopefully they will do more good than harm in the long run. Her husband has been a great steadying influence over the past two or three years."

Her husband is Larry King, a polite, confident and self-effacing young man, who has got to win some award for patience under adversity. They met in the fall of 1962 at L.A. State, started going together the following spring and were married in October 1965. Though things have worked out well—after 2½ years they still hold hands like high school seniors—their marriage was not exactly one of convenience. First, Larry is a year younger than Billie Jean; second, at the time of their marriage he still had a year of undergraduate work and three years of law school to look forward to; and third, with Billie Jean on the world tennis circuit, they hardly get to see each other. And when they do it's usually across a desk at the University of California law school library—he studying torts, precedents and all that; she knitting or reading Oscar Lewis. And despite that hefty $80,000 pro contract Larry still works at the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority house as a waiter to help pay the bills.

"It's probably better we're apart so often," Billie Jean said. "When we are together we just enjoy each other so much, not much law gets read and I don't get much practice in."

Being the husband of a famous woman athlete does have its moments. Larry still occasionally gets asked for his autograph, which he dutifully signs as "Mr. Billie Jean King."

"I don't get put on too much anymore, though," he said. "The guys at the law school still can't believe it, but I think most of them are envious—or think I'm crazy."

But all Billie Jean says is, "I've told him if he ever wants me to quit, just say so. It's hard to stop, and it will be for me. But if he had said that 2½ years ago I would have quit.

"When we were married Larry said it's a shame when people don't use their talent. I agree. I think it's the worst thing in the world."

That talent should take her to her third straight Wimbledon title. Maybe then Billie Jean King, the perpetual underdog, will get the recognition she deserves.

PHOTO PHOTOLarry King, a law student at Berkeley, has become accustomed to signing autograph requests as "Mr. Billie Jean King."

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)