A tennis player who had not been there for 17 years finally turned up once again among the 61 women performing on the spongy green turf of Forest Hills last week, someone with a chance to complete a Grand Slam. This girl was present in the graceful, tanned figure of Margaret Smith Court, the leggy, athletic, blue-eyed blonde from Australia who had already won the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles, the first three of the Big Four.
The men find Grand Slams just slightly easier to come by. Don Budge hit for one in 1938. Rod Laver did it as an amateur in 1962 and again as a professional last year. For the ladies, Grand Slams are all but impossible to achieve. The female of the species seems to be more vulnerable than the male to such things as fatigue, physical ailments and just plain shattered nerves. Only one woman has ever won all four major championships in the same year—the late Maureen Connolly of California. In 1953 Little Mo won hers in a breeze with the loss of only one set, polishing off Doris Hart 6-2, 6-4 in the final at Forest Hills. Since then no one has come into Forest Hills with three straight. Not until now.
As you read this Margaret Court's Grand Slam bid may have been upset, but defeat seemed remote in the hot, humid air of the West Side Tennis Club last week as the $176,000 U.S. Open tournament got under way. It is Mrs. Court's style to do things all-out and do them pretty quickly, as well. In her first match she needed only 27 minutes to get into full stride. By a score of 6-1, 6-0 Margaret demolished a cute, harmless, blonde young thing from Rolling Hills, Calif. named Pam Austin whose racket barely came in contact with the ball at all, except when she happened to be serving it.
"It's nice to get the first one out of the way," said Margaret, who played every shot as if it were match point in the finals, "but it wasn't quick enough to suit me."
Two days later, in the second round, she met Patti Hogan, the chubby girl from La Jolla, Calif. who had ended her streak of 42 consecutive match victories during the Marlboro Open in New Jersey the week before, and whipped her 6-1, 6-1, requiring just 35 minutes.
Mrs. Court, now 28 years old, is a sweet, simple country lass from New South Wales. Her tennis game, of course, is neither of these things. It is powerful, destructive, relentless and seemingly without a flaw. Definitely not on the sweet side. She is a superbly athletic animal, the physical equal of a great many men, but determination is really Margaret Court's chief trademark. For almost 10 years—outstanding even among the Hards, the Buenos and the Moffitt-Kings—this passion to excel has made her the dominating figure in women's tennis.
"Most of us tend to let up against a weak opponent," says John Newcombe. "We take it easy, relax, have fun. But not Margaret. It is in her makeup that she must go all-out no matter who she is playing. She'd certainly have more fun on court if she relaxed a bit. Who knows, she might even play better, if that's possible."
Newcombe remembers Margaret from 10 years ago, when she first became a player of note in Australia, as a pleasant but retiring string bean of a girl.
"She wasn't the sort you'd notice at a party," he said last week. "In fact, she seldom went to parties. Maybe because she was from the country. But you certainly noticed her determination at tennis. She used to be a skinny girl, but she lifted weights, ran, trained hard and played hard. She'd be good at most any game. She'd probably be pretty great as a runner, at the 220 or 440. She's very fast and strong."
Margaret's part of the country was Albury, a junction town on the main Sydney-Melbourne railway line and notable in her youth for not much more than the fact that it was where the tracks changed gauge and where the grumbling passengers, therefore, had to change trains. Margaret, whose father worked as a foreman in an Albury cheese-and-butter factory, took up tennis at the age of 9 on the public courts across the street from her family's two-bedroom house. By the time she was 15 only the boys were good enough to play her, and she had won 60 tennis trophies. One day Margaret rode on down the rail line to Melbourne to find out what big-time tennis was all about, moving in with former Australian tennis star Frank Sedgman and his family. Sedgman put her on a vigorous training program that packed muscle on her scrawny frame.
Almost immediately the new muscle made points. In 1960, at the age of 17, Margaret won the Australian championship, defeating Brazil's Maria Bueno in the finals. She was the youngest girl ever to win that title, and it was merely the first of seven consecutive Aussie championships. During those years she also added two French, two Wimbledon and two Forest Hills titles. Then, at the end of 1966, she got fed up and retired.
"I just got tired of traveling, of packing and unpacking suitcases, of seeing tennis balls all the time," she says. "I'd won everything, and I was getting bored. I wasn't able to give my best."
Not being able to give her best was a cardinal sin to Margaret. For the next few months she was visible behind two giant portholes cut into the brick front of a boutique—it was called The Peephole—that she had opened with a friend in a middle-class suburb of Perth. Margaret's career at The Peephole lasted not long beyond October 1967 when she married a Perth wool broker and champion yachtsman named Barry Court. Her retirement from tennis lasted only a few months longer.
Court, a tall, assured man a year older than Margaret, claims some of the credit for getting his wife back into the world tennis picture. "I'd traveled around Australia," Barry says, "but I'd never been out of it. I talked about how I would like to see the world, and the next thing I knew Margaret was back on the tour."
Another reason for her return was that Margaret had begun playing friendly matches with some of her old touring buddies. Despite not having touched hand to handle for 16 months, she found she could still beat them. The yen to play more seriously returned.
"The challenge is still there," says Margaret, "and traveling is so much more fun with Barry. 1 am more relaxed and I am playing better. I enjoy it more, too, and I've actually found it a lot easier to play well. It's all the experience adding up, I guess. I've learned so much, and my thinking about how to play the game has improved a great deal."
With Billie Jean King recuperating from knee surgery and England's Ann Jones, the 1969 Wimbledon champion, choosing not to play the big tournaments this year, Margaret seemed to have an almost clear field for her Grand Slam bid as the rest of the tennis world gathered last week at Forest Hills. The only thing that might possibly cause a bad stumble would be the pressure of the task; Mrs. Court can be highly nervous.
How the pressure might affect her was a source of some disagreement. "It should help me," said Margaret. "It will just make me try harder."
Not so, says one of her challengers. "The pressure of going for a Grand Slam should hurt Margaret," declared the sprightly, pixie-faced Aussie, Kerry Melville, who has lost four finals matches to Mrs. Court in tournaments this year and beaten her only once in eight meetings. "With someone like Billie Jean the pressure would be an advantage. Billie Jean really would bear down and try harder. I think Margaret is probably going to win here at Forest Hills, but her nerves are her only weak point. You can't outhit her, you can't beat her staying back at the baseline, and she's almost impossible to pass at the net. I've tried every way to beat her, and the thing that works best is to throw everything into the first few games, try to stay with her, to win early. Put her under pressure like that and she gets rattled. You can beat her. But let her win a couple of games right off and its almost hopeless. When she gets confident Margaret is just about unbeatable."
As the week ended Margaret Court was at her confident best. With two down and only four mere mortals to go, the Grand Slam seemed only a couple of smashes away.