Here is a trivia question for the mid-1980s: Evonne Goolagong has beaten Chris Evert in the finals of Wimbledon and Forest Hills five times, right? And Chris has also beaten Evonne five times in the finals. Now the question is, when and where did these two champions first meet? Don't know? It was back in March of 1972, March 8, a Wednesday to be exact, at a place called the T Bar M Racquet Club in Dallas. No, no, they didn't play each other. Billie Jean King prevented that by beating Chris in the quarterfinals. But Chris and Evonne were introduced during the tournament. They had lunch and shared a few giggles, all the time sizing each other up like a pair of strange heavyweights. They knew they would be seeing a lot of one another during the next 10 years or so.
Final question: Remember who won that tournament? No, not Evonne. In the semifinals she, too, was beaten by Billie Jean who, though tired, was playing as though her life depended on it. But Billie Jean did not win, either, because waiting for her in the final was Nancy Richey Gunter, cool and rested, and she gunned down Billie Jean 7-6, 6-1. That earned her $11,000, which may not seem like much now, but at the time was the highest purse in women's tennis.
It had been the hope of those who staged the Maureen Connolly Brinker tournament last week that Evonne and Chris, the game's two most exciting players, would take the court together for the first time, and with the help of a logical draw it might have happened. Anyone with common sense would have seeded Evonne first, a tribute to her Wimbledon victory, Billie Jean second and Chris third, thereby creating a possible Goolagong-Evert semifinal. But tennis is not noted for its common sense and after some infighting among various factions, there emerged a draw that somehow stuck the three of them in the same bracket, where they could kill off each other while allowing someone, Nancy Gunter as it developed, a peaceful journey to the finals. Now Evonne is off to South Africa, Chris is back at school in Fort Lauderdale and the world must wait for their first showdown.
It is only natural that people were hoping the two girls would play because there is such similarity between them, or at least in their situations. Both became tennis celebrities last year, Evonne by beating Margaret Court at the age of 19 to become the Wimbledon champion, Chris by moving to the semifinals at Forest Hills at 16 before losing to Billie Jean. Now everyone wants them to play in tournaments, to interview them, photograph them, have them sign autographs or merely gawk at them. In Dallas last week neither girl could stroll through the plush clubhouse without at least a dozen stops for requests of this kind.
March 20, 1972
Fortunately, both girls have men to protect them from too much attention. In Evonne's case it is Vic Edwards, her coach and adopted father. Edwards, 62, is a tall, burly man with a thin white mustache. He can be cheerful, as he was in Dallas, chatting with club members and sipping a beer while Evonne was on the court practicing, but there is also an iciness about him which he uses to shield Evonne from too many well-wishers. Engage the young lady in conversation and suddenly Edwards is likely to appear, saying, "I think you've had your share."
The two are very close. Whenever Evonne finished a match last week, Edwards would bring her a cool drink and give her a kiss. When someone offered her a refill, she checked with Edwards for permission. Edwards had hoped Evonne would be ready to win Wimbledon by 1974 and while he is pleased it happened sooner, he says he worries whether she will be able to withstand the pressure of being the target for every other player. Fortunately Evonne is a relaxed, cheerful person—"a fun girl," Chris said last week. There are times when Edwards looks as if he is under pressure, but if Evonne feels it, she masks it with a merry smile.
Chris' coach is her father, Jimmy Evert, a leathery little teaching pro who, while slightly bewildered by his daughter's sudden fame, has a firm grip on the situation. He says that since Forest Hills everyone wants to watch Chris practice. There is such a demand for courts at his club in Fort Lauderdale, especially during the tourist season, that people must wait, and while they wait what better way to spend the time than to lean against the wire fence and watch the teen-age whiz? Now when Jimmy Evert wants to criticize his daughter for some mistake, he must wait and do it privately because Chris naturally feels uncomfortable taking criticism with such a gallery watching.
Yet Chris looks as if she too will be able to withstand the pressure simply because she seems determined not to let anything in the world get the better of her, pressure included. She has a good sense of humor—after her match with Billie Jean in Dallas she phoned her mother, told her she had just lost and began to describe how before Jimmy took over the phone. But on the court she is all business, no smiles, never. Her father says that not long ago he had to scold her for something she did, saying that if she was going to do that, fine, but no more tennis tournaments; moments later there was a hint of tears in her eyes, a reminder that this cool young killer has in fact just recently graduated from being a little girl.
For a while last week it seemed as if Chris and Evonne would not meet even socially. Evonne was the first to arrive, flying in from Sydney with Edwards four days before the tournament began, her first trip to the U.S. She submitted to a mass interview, complete with klieg lights and microphones around the neck. Asked if she had ever eaten Mexican food, she said no. The next day six Mexican restaurants called offering free meals. One afternoon she went to Neiman-Marcus where she thought about buying two Stetsons for her brothers and decided against it, but mostly she spent her time practicing at the club with one of the local pros—Edwards always has Evonne work out with men on the theory that there is less horsing around—and staying inside her motel room watching television.
Chris arrived Tuesday evening. She had spent the morning in school, among other things giving a 20-minute presentation on the poet Randall Jarrell, then had practiced with her father before the two of them were driven to Miami by Mrs. Evert for the flight to Dallas. When they landed, Evonne was on the court, very nearly losing to her first-round opponent, Wendy Gilchrist. Chris and her father were driven to their motel, Chris getting room 651 to Evonne's 551. The Everts quickly suited up and were taken to the club for another practice session, but by that time Evonne had pulled out her match and was on her way back to the motel to change into an evening gown and attend a little bash for the players at the home of John Murchison. Jimmy Evert declined, feeling Chris had done enough for one day.
The next morning Steve Lurie, the promotion man on the ladies' tour, took the Everts to breakfast. He asked Edwards to join them, but he and Evonne had already eaten and were about to go to the club. When Chris arrived there, Evonne was on the No. 1 court rallying. T Bar M has four indoor courts, but only three were used for the tournament, the fourth giving way to bleachers that held 1,350. Chris entered the ladies' dressing room to change. Evonne finished her workout but lingered on court. Chris emerged and disappeared toward a court in the opposite direction just as Evonne finally finished and went into the dressing room, the two missing each other by seconds.
When the grand meeting did occur, it was as formal and solemn as that recent one in China. The two girls shook hands. Edwards and Evert shook hands. Edwards shook hands with Chris. Evert shook hands with Evonne. All of them, plus a few others, were seated at a large round table in the middle of the dining room. Evonne ordered salad. Chris declined to eat because she had a match soon. Evonne admired Chris' tennis sweater. The two girls talked music. Evonne was sorry she had left her cassette player in Australia. Chris wondered if that girl over there by the window was her first-round opponent. Evonne said it was. Neither asked how the other was hitting them.
In the early matches both girls showed that their second serves had improved—harder, deeper, more spin. Evonne had some difficulty adjusting to the artificial surface, but she is a marvelous athlete and it did not take long. Chris' game is more stylized, but her crackling ground strokes had the crowds gasping. She won her first two matches with ease and then, thanks to the absurd draw, there was Billie Jean in the quarterfinals.
Billie Jean had a mission in Dallas—revenge. Since earning her much-publicized $100,000 last year, she has been an unhappy young woman. The pressures of her dual role as a tennis champion and as an informal promoter of the game—she often speaks in the first person plural, stating that Wendy or whoever "is one of our better young players"—began to wear on her late last year. She is also bitter about Evonne's ranking as the top player of 1971. "Some guy over there in England watches one tournament a year—Wimbledon—and then ranks the players." After a celebrated 6-1, 6-0 drubbing by Chris in Fort Lauderdale last month, Billie Jean lost in the second round in Oklahoma City and the first round in Washington. Physically and mentally exhausted, she flew to Hawaii with her husband Larry for a week of sun, beach and no tennis, save for one afternoon of social mixed doubles. "Out there I told myself that I had hit rock bottom," she said last week, "and I asked myself if I wanted to do anything about it or not." She decided she did, hopped a plane back to California and arrived in Dallas minutes after Chris and her father had landed.
The King-Evert battle was a classic. Each girl seemingly won it twice. Teddy Tinling, the tennis-dress designer, ranks it on his list of top five matches since the war. Others put it higher. The first set went to 6-6, then four points apiece in sudden death. Billie Jean served, and when Chris hit a sizzling return, Billie Jean volleyed beyond the baseline. Set to Chris.
Buoyed, Chris jumped to a 3-1 lead in the second set and had 15-40 against Billie Jean's serve. Another point would give her two service breaks and almost certain victory. But Billie Jean held on, won the game and then eight of the next nine, taking the second set 6-3 and leading in the third 4-1. And so she had apparently won. Except that Chris reeled off four straight games, during which Billie Jean started hobbling around the court with a cramp in her left leg. At 4-5, she served and barely moved for the return. Point to Evert. The end was near. Whereupon Billie Jean won nine straight points, the cramp disappearing in the process. Three times Chris fought off match point, but the fourth one got her, Billie Jean winning 7-5, thus getting even for Fort Lauderdale.
The next night Billie Jean stuck a pin in her other young rival, Evonne, who had beaten her in straight sets on the way to her Wimbledon triumph. During the first set it looked as if Billie Jean was tired and sore—after the Evert battle she had been forced to play a doubles match that did not end until one in the morning. Evonne won 6-1, looking fresh and young and talented and unbeatable.
But Billie Jean is a fighter and she knows a number of ways to win. She has the widest range of shots in the game. If one approach fails, she tries another. She won the second set 6-4 when Evonne failed to hit a return of a serve she thought was out, then galloped through the deciding set 6-1, a performance that might give that man in London something to think about.
On Sunday afternoon, having done away with her two young rivals, Billie Jean fell prey to an old one. Who can say what the result would have been if the draw had been more fair, if Nancy Gunter had been forced to face either Chris or Evonne? She is playing well—this was her second win in three weeks—but there was no question that Billie Jean was physically and emotionally drained by her early battles. The crowd enjoyed the match but surely would have preferred the one they never got to see—Evonne against Chris. That one must wait for another day.