In the bar at the Lincoln Plaza Hotel in Oklahoma City it was getting on toward midnight, and the red-haired woman with the brown and green eyes was sipping a glass of orange juice while her fiancé packed away a few after-dinner Scotches and nodded to the music of a three-piece combo.
Half an hour earlier the drummer had stopped by their table for a drink and had laid on them a tale of what it was like to grow up black in the South, a story told in a kind of jive rhythm, thick with folkisms and hip enigmas. The red-haired woman, whose brown and green eyes also held flecks of red in the peculiar light of the bar, listened with the greatest sympathy, considering that she was French and could hardly understand a word the man was saying, and when he rose to go back to the bandstand she took off her necklace and gave it to him.
The black man looked at the pendant on the necklace and started grinning. "Right on," he said. He put on the necklace and returned to his drums and sat there grinning through the final set.
"He must have like it," said the red-haired woman.
March 6, 1972
The pendant was a cartoon figure of a flapper with rolled hose and a tennis racket. Whether the irony was comprehended fully is a matter of guesswork, but that cartoon figure is associated with an advertising slogan that says, "You've come a long way, baby."
The red-haired woman was Fran√ßoise Durr of Paris, France, the sixth-ranking woman tennis player in the world and at that moment the fourth leading money-winner on the Virginia Slims Women's Tennis Circuit. Virginia Slims is a brand of cigarettes that partly sponsors the women's professional tennis tour and places its slogan on banners around the courts as well as on buttons, sweat suits and on the T shirts that Fran√ßoise Durr fills out in such admirable fashion. The slogan neatly fits in with the female tour's nickname—Women's Lob—and with the journey of Fran√ßoise herself.
Fran√ßoise turned toward her fiancé, showing in profile a fine French nose that General de Gaulle would have been proud of, and said mildly, "I suppose Nancy is in bed asleep by now."
"Forget Nancy wherever she is. You'll beat Nancy. You're a fighter," said her fiancé, Bill Cutler, who works for the sponsoring tobacco company. Cutler looked at the other person at their table, a tall fellow whose eyes also held many flecks of red that had nothing to do with the lighting or the benefits of natural coloring.
"Nancy's a fighter, too," Cutler said. "She was brought up to live for beating you on the tennis court. Right now that's probably all she's thinking about, beating Frankie here. Well, you've got to admire that quality, the way things are in America these days—with the country full of co-ops."
"You mean communes?" said the other person.
"No. I mean co-ops. People who just want to cooperate with everybody and don't care about winning."
"I didn't realize the country was full of people like that," said the other person, feeling a little cheerier.
"It's full of them," Cutler said.
"I want to beat Nancy, but if I lose..." said Fran√ßoise.
"You won't lose," Cutler said. He looked again at the other person, whose knowledge of tennis bordered on the primitive—backhand, forehand, serve, run around a bit, partake of cooling liquids, that was about it. "You'd be surprised. I've noticed a tremendous predisposition among the women players about which ones they can beat and which ones they can't. Largely it's been the same women playing each other for the last six or eight years—though there are some good new ones coming up—and they'll remember matches they lost to a certain player three or four years ago. They'll think, 'That girl beat me, she's better than I am,' and they'll go out and lose to her again. For example, Frankie's got this idea that she has a hard time with Nancy Richey Gunter. Billie Jean King thinks she can beat all of them, and they know it, and she wins some matches she should have lost because her opponent will realize late in the match that she's not supposed to beat Billie Jean and will fall apart.
"Last year," said Cutler, "the big book on the women's tour was Psycho-Cybernetics, about how you do something in your mind before you actually free it physically, train your mind and body to perform perfectly, get rid of the idea that maybe you'll fail. The book went through the girls like fire. Frankie read it."
"I read half of it," Fran√ßoise said with a French accent she fears is becoming Americanized but sounded like a melody in the Oklahoma bar. "Then I put it down. If I am going to play the match over and over in my head, by the time I go onto the court I am too tired to play. I am worn out with thinking about it. I know what I am supposed to do—run Nancy back and forth, back and forth. So I wait until I go onto the court to do it."
"You'll beat her, honey," said Cutler.
"That is the kind of encouragement I need. Not this thing in that book," Fran√ßoise said.
Early that afternoon the women in the championship flight of the tennis tour had met in the student center at Oklahoma City University to draw for first-round opponents. (There are now close to 50 on the tour but only 16 usually play in the championship flight for the prize money, the others battling each other in two satellite tournaments, called qualifying and preliminary flights, for the right to move up.) The attractive, bouncy Billie Jean King, who at 28 refers to herself as "the old lady" of the tour, was seeded No. 1 in the circuit's point system based on matches won. Frankie Durr, 29, was seeded No. 2. The notion behind seeding is that the two hottest players are placed at the top and bottom of the brackets so that there is a good chance they will meet in the finals.
As the women, or girls—whatever you call a bunch of females who are mostly in their early 20s—gathered at a long table gossiping and laughing, there was the feeling of watching some postgraduate sorority affair. They were an amazingly good-looking group of people, especially when one thought of the stereotype of the woman athlete. Nobody had a beard. Nobody looked or sounded like Ernest Borgnine. The ones who weren't still in sweat suits from a morning of practice were thoughtfully dressed. Billie Jean King—winner of 33 national championships, undisputed world champion for three years, last year the first woman athlete ever to win more than $100,000 in a season—wore curved, tinted glasses, black slacks and a Western shirt and, later, put on a rainbow poncho her husband Larry had bought for her in Panama. Wendy Overton, fifth-seeded, tall and blonde, looked like the product of a patrician Eastern girls' school. Nobody waddled, not a lumberjack in the group.
Lesley Hunt, a beautiful young blonde from Australia, drew Billie Jean King in the first round and cried out, "How could I have such luck!" The draw continued, presided over by the 64-year-old Britisher Pip Jones, tour manager, husband of 33-year-old former Wimbledon champion Ann Haydon Jones, who was cuddling their two-month-old baby. Frankie Durr, winner of five tournaments and $65,000 last year and winner of the French Open doubles championship the past five years, sat up smiling as her draw was announced. She rolled her eyes at Nancy Gunter, who sat at another table. "There is no use to worry. We just see what happen," Frankie said.
At a cocktail party and dinner that night at Quail Creek Country Club, Billie Jean King was saying, "Frankie is a hard worker. Does a lot to help this tour, and she's a fantastic player because of her mobility and consistency. She positions herself beautifully on the court. That serve of hers is more difficult to handle than it looks. She's always ready for your return, and if you step up and really try to put her serve away, you get the strangest sensation. It's like swinging at a nothing ball. You can't tell what you've hit."
"Frankie is the sweetest thing ever to come out of France," said Pip Jones. "It's a remarkable thing to watch her play tennis. There's not a better doubles player anywhere. I wouldn't recommend parents to take their children to see her to learn her strokes, which are unorthodox to say the least. But if you want them to learn tactics, tell them to watch Frankie."
As Pip Jones was speaking, Frankie Durr was smiling politely across the dinner table, making conversation with several local ladies. A few years before, Frankie would have had trouble eating or sleeping on the night before a match with a player like Nancy Gunter. But now she was taking it calmly, even though it remained in her thoughts. Frankie's game is based on hitting the ball back and not getting caught out of position rather than on attacking. "But one thing I can't do with Nancy," she whispered, "is stay deep and keep trading drives with her. Nancy's father did that with her for years, and she can keep hitting perfect balls that way all night long. I will have to mix it up, change the pace, try to throw her off."
Fran√ßoise Durr started playing tennis when she was 13 in Algeria, where her family had lived for four generations. Her father was a French colonel, a war hero who was killed on a routine flight in 1945, when Frankie was 3. She left Algeria during the revolution, moved to Paris with her mother, brother and sister, and took her unusual strokes ("Some people call them bizarre, but I think it is nicer to call them unique," she says) onto the international tournament circuit while in her teens. She astounded the other players with her grip—right forefinger extended along the handle, same for backhand and forehand—and with a backhand stroke that she could use to throw a Frisbee. But she began to win.
As a result, Frankie has played against all of the most celebrated women players of the last 10 years—and several of the men. With her game depending so heavily on tactics instead of power, she studies her opponents with care. One afternoon before her Oklahoma City match with Nancy Gunter, Frankie was asked to rate the top 10 women players, in her opinion, in order and discuss them. She thought about it for a while and then began listing them, not in the order prescribed by official rankings:
1. Billie Jean King. "She has no real weakness. She has power, but a nice touch as well, and she's a very nice person. I think I may have a little edge over her because I beat her last year and she knows I can beat her. She volleys so well that I try to go to the net before she does. She is a wonderful player."
2. Margaret Court. "Margaret is so big and very strong. She hits the ball hard and it's very heavy on the racket. I get tired playing her. If I go to the net, she's too tall to hit the ball past. I've beaten her once out of 10 or 15 times. I'm not strong enough to play her. She stays by herself, is not very friendly. Maybe that's the way to be a champion—by yourself on the top. When she's playing well, it's very hard for anyone to beat her."
3. Evonne Goolagong. "A very strange girl. She plays well or badly, depending on her mood. She's a talented, natural player. This year the pressure is on her because of her No. 1 world ranking. Last year she was relaxed. She can play any kind of game, stay back or serve and volley. She adjusts according to whom she's playing. I try to make her come to the net and pass her. If she stays back, she makes strokes I don't like. She can do anything with the ball. She's very young, only 20 now, but acts more like she's 15. She carries a tape recorder and music everywhere and travels always with her coach. She's a little special, won't really mix with the rest of us."
4. Kerry Melville. "A nice girl but very shy. She doesn't talk much, doesn't have a strong personality. Her game is improving and she's playing well now. But she's hard to know and talk to."
5. Rosemary Casals. "A good friend of mine, she's in a bad period at the moment. Not happy. She's having trouble with her weight. She doesn't listen to anyone right now or talk to anyone very much. But she's a great friend to have around and can be a lot of fun. She's the most talented player of us all, can hit any stroke. She's small but hits the ball hard and has one of the best serves of any of the girls. But sometimes she doesn't have the mentality for the game, is lacking something in the head. I don't know what it is."
6. Chris Evert. "She is difficult to know, but of course she really hasn't been around much. I'm sure she feels kind of out of it, still being in school. She's a nice girl and very poised to be only 17. She seems more like 25. She's good, thinks well, is very clever and is improving. She plays more volleys than she used to. She's winning points now instead of waiting for her opponents to make mistakes. She'll be one of the very best in two years."
7. Virginia Wade. "Along with Rosie Casals, Virginia has the best serve. She's a peculiar girl, can be nice or not so nice depending on her mood. I don't know how to take her. She has tremendous power but is very nervous. The nervousness kills her sometimes, like at Wimbledon. She can't play there. Is always losing to somebody she shouldn't. Maybe she's too bright, has too much imagination, can't do what she wants to do. She plays well in one tournament but is up and down. She'll win a fantastic match, but she could lose to anybody."
8. Nancy Richey Gunter. "Her whole life has been based on tennis. She has sacrificed a lot for the game. Now that she's married, she seems to be taking it a little easier. Her father taught her not to talk or even say hello to an opponent before a match, so she has been a long time by herself, thinking about tennis. She does hardly any promotion for the tour. The other girls get a little bit mad about that. She practices at least an hour before a match. She's most difficult to beat, maybe is too steady for me. Nancy never gives up, no matter how far she might get down."
9. Judy Dalton. "One of my very best friends. We pull for each other and help give each other confidence. We're doubles partners. She bangs her racket around like I do, to get things out of her system so she doesn't go wrong. She's more relaxed now that she's married and is playing her last year on the tour. Maybe she doesn't move her feet enough, but she's a strong player."
10. Fran√ßoise Durr. "Why not put myself 10th? I don't know, maybe I should be five or six. Determination is what makes me win. I wouldn't say I have a great serve or hit great shots, but I believe I can beat almost anyone. My biggest weakness is when I lose confidence. I don't hit the drop shot very well. I get very mad at myself when I know what to do and can't do it. Footwork is the key to tennis. First you must be in position with your feet before you can hit the ball properly. I used to skip rope a lot to develop my footwork. Also I work hard on my concentration, try to get keyed up for a match, try to know which shots my opponents don't like. When I start to lose confidence, I write my coach, Joseph Stolpa, in France. He writes me every week. I could tell you how to beat me, but I won't do it. I wouldn't want the girls to read that."
It is obviously an odd sort of life, perhaps particularly so for a woman. Frankie Durr played in 38 tournaments last year. She plays for six or seven months in the U.S. and two or three in Europe.
"It is an exhausting, lonely life," she said. "You meet many people, but then you don't see them again for a year. If you want to be the best, be on top, you must work very hard. It all depends on what you want out of life. The life of a professional athlete is superficial and the satisfaction is very short. When you fall from the top, you may still have a big name but it is not the same, and you must prepare yourself for it. So many don't realize that playing the game at the top is a short part of your life, and even that short part requires much sacrifice. I am at the point now where I am ready to quit in a year or two and try to change my life. It is an important step."
A number of the players on the tour are married, but few travel with their husbands and none have children. There have been inevitable speculations about homosexuality. "I have heard the things people say," Frankie said. "It could be a problem, all right. I don't know. I doubt we are any different from any other group of people."
On the morning of her evening match with Nancy Gunter, Frankie practiced for a while, watched her friend Judy Dalton win a match and then returned to her hotel to rest and play her guitar. She also plays classical piano, "but a guitar is easier to carry," she said. "If I had my life to do over, I would be a top-spin tennis player—instead of playing the flat game like I do now—or be a pop singer. Maybe it's not too late."
She had steak and salad two hours before her match and went back to the OCU field house to borrow some tennis rackets from Dalton and from Betty Stove, another close friend. Frankie broke her own French fiber-glass racket weeks ago, has been unable to get replacements, and has been using borrowed rackets. In that time she has broken three of Dalton's. Her temper on the court is such that once in Melbourne she threw a racket so high that the wind caught it and blew it out of the stadium. "Imagine a golfer playing with borrowed clubs," she said, warming up. "It is ridiculous, I think."
In the first set against Nancy Gunter, Frankie was quickly down 3-0. She sailed Dalton's racket beneath a table and picked up a metal racket of Stove's. They were playing a deep game in the dim field house, blasting from the baselines, Nancy Gunter grunting with the effort of each shot. Frankie was loudly exhorting herself into her work, and she finally tied the set 6-6 and won the tiebreaker. The two girls kept banging away, running at a heavy pace, and Durr seemed to begin to crack. She sat down in the stands and hung her head for a moment and lost the second set 6-2.
In the third, down 3-0, Frankie looked weary and disappointed. "I don't care," she said. "She can have it." But then she said, "I've been out here too long already to quit and go home now." With another surge of strength, Frankie moved ahead 4-3. Nancy tied it 4-4, and Frankie broke Nancy's service in the final game to win the set 6-4 and the match. She came off the court, her red ponytail limp with sweat, her feet covered with blisters from running for two hours on the artificial carpet.
Frankie's exhaustion carried over to the next day, when she was upset by Valerie Ziegenfuss. Then it was on to Paris for a couple of days' rest before the grind took up with the next show on the road, baby.