This was Wimbledon's forsaken year, devoid of the best men and besmirched by women dressed in, ugh, colors. But a messenger better suit up anyway to spread the word that the crowds were huge, the strawberries heroic and that a king and a corporal emerged victorious. This result was especially quaint because both winners were from a place that had been deprived of joint men's and women's All-England Championships for 17 years. Get this straight now, messenger. Tell everyone the place is America and that in international tennis we are back.
The fact that Spec/4 Stan Smith of Sea Pines, S.C. took advantage of the absence of all the banned pros, including defending champion John Newcombe, and that Billie Jean King of Long Beach, Calif. and the women's liberation brigade was forced to shatter the dreams of two magical princesses, and the fact that both were very nearly expected to win (Smith was seeded No. 1, King No. 2)—all of this in no way detracted from their achievements or wounded the immense satisfaction they gained from the deed.
After all, Wimbledon is Wimbledon—"even if they threw out everybody and seeded two monkeys onto center court," as one competitor suggested last week. Smith and King dominated their respective fields, became the first Americans to win together since Tony Trabert and Louise Brough in 1955 and handled the sticky matters of "hollow victory" and "upsetting applecarts" with dispatch.
"You don't try to lose just because all the best players aren't here," said Smith early on. "The subject isn't even worth my time. This is still the greatest tournament in the world, and the pros know it. For me, this championship would be the pinnacle."
July 16, 1972
In like manner, Billie Jean discarded the suggestion that a Chris Evert victory would be "for the good of the game."
"A better question is, would it be good for her?" said King. "I'm just starting to get the appreciation I deserved four years ago. I've waited a whole 360 days to make up for my last Wimbledon. I'm not about to lie down and lose for a storybook."
No apologies would be in order even if Smith and King had defeated a contingent of orangutans. On Smith's part, he was the one man in this year's draw who had reached a Wimbledon final during the previous four seasons of open competition. That was last year when he was beaten by Newcombe.
This time the tall soldier waded through a couple of rounds before spectators could find him. Such was the scheduling that most of the time Smith was laboring on Court 11, "out in the country" as the players call the lawns farthest from the main promenade.
"No. 11 is nice, but I wouldn't want to make a living there," Smith said one day. "If somebody can show me the way to center court I'll be all right."
Having experienced a bad string of matches on clay in Europe, Smith was slow adjusting to Wimbledon. He was tentative, unable to serve his boomers or hit returns adequately. But his road to the final was smoothly paved with nobodies, and he had traveled it before. As Smith pointed out with respect to his final opponent, Ilie Nastase of Rumania, "If I have to, I can always go to my guts to beat this guy."
The reduced standard of the men's singles made for, potentially, an adventurous journey through the draw since five of the seeds were continental clay experts who were undistinguished on grass, while several unseeded players could have surprised. Unfortunately, the only excitement on the men's side was provided by the mercurial Nastase and a 19-year-old UCLA dropout named Jimmy Connors.
Connors, with his double-fisted backhand in tow and his coaching mother, Gloria, shouting encouragement, upset South Africa's Bob Hewitt in the opening round and marched ever forward until the quarterfinals where he would have needed a three-fisted backhand to avoid a straight-set tennis lesson from Nastase. After his forceful win, the ebullient Rumanian hesitantly entered the press room.
"Ah, boys, you have meeting here?" he inquired. "Ah. You want talk me. Remember, boys, I am shy one. You take it easy me."
On the court Nastase is anything but timid. He is afire, alternately flamboyant, sulking, assured and reckless. He is the most entertaining tennis player alive. Up until the Wimbledon fortnight, however, "Nasty" was known basically for his technique on slow surfaces.
Nastase came to the finish through some difficult and emotional pairings, beating his old sparring mate Clark Graebner, as well as Tom Gorman and Manuel Orantes. Still, his record against Smith in the big games was inconsistent. Nastase's finest moment on grass was a victory over Smith at Forest Hills in 1969, but he could also remember how Smith had beaten him in the Davis Cup finals last year.
"I never think to pass as many rounds, but this is one of my best concentration times," Nastase said. "I not scare anymore. I hit like in practice, hard all time. I know this my last chance to win Wimbledon—honest. This my life match. I wish very bad to beat Stan Smit." And he nearly got his wish.
The final match was postponed a day because of heavy rains, a delay that hardly bothered Smith (he had waited for three wet days and nights to win Forest Hills last summer). Nastase visited a horror movie Saturday night to keep his mind on the American, whom he sometimes refers to as Godzilla.
In the past he has been susceptible to scrambled nerves, but this time the Rumanian rose to almost mystical heights as he and Smith made Wimbledon's first Sabbath final well worth the delay.
Early in the fray Nastase seized the lead, even as he slapped his racket gut, bellowed at some private demons and made wild gestures to his Italian mentor, Michele Brunetti, for help.
He won the first set 6-4, then lost the next two and won the fourth. He entered the deciding set fully loose, hitting out and in full cry. In the fifth game of the last set Smith, playing the steadier tennis of the two, went to 40-love but then faltered and had to play 17 more points before holding service with a soft drop that died on the chalk.
The set went on to 3-3 and 4-4 with both men engaging in some fine acrobatics. Smith recovered from love-30 in the ninth game to hold service with a backhand volley that caused Nastase to bury his face in his hands. Then the Rumanian, chasing everywhere to retrieve Smith's best shots, staved off two match points to tie again at five games apiece.
Smith served and won 6-5. Nastase went to 40-love on his serve, and it looked as if they might go on playing until all of Wimbledon's hydrangeas turned brown. But suddenly Smith flashed three sharp winning returns around a Nastase double fault, and it was match point again. The Rumanian saved that one but, moments later, on the brink again, he hit an easy backhand overhead into the net. It was over, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, a crushing way to lose, an exhilarating way to win.
Momentarily stunned, hardly realizing that Wimbledon was his, Smith just stared. Then he hurled his racket high into the sky, knowing that when it landed the day belonged to him.
It took the dramatics of the final match to give the men any day at this year's Wimbledon. Indeed, they never really overcame the interest generated by a 17-year-old girl named Chris.
Chris Evert arrived at Wimbledon with her mother, an aunt and uncle, her parish priest, her school principal, her dress designer, her dress designer's husband and more pretty little pastel hair ribbons than Doris Day could dream of. Chris was prim, proper and perfect for Wimbledon. A Floridian, she found London itself "so green, so old and lovely—it's nice not to be hot all the time." During the early days of her trip she led the U.S. Wightman Cup team to victory and won the women's championship at Queens Club, thus establishing her tennis credentials for the knowing British fans. She shopped the boutiques on The Kings Road and Piccadilly, and in the evenings went out to roast-beef dinners and gambling clubs as well as a discoth√®que or two with Connors.
The British press, always prone to exaggeration, not to mention hysteria, went absolutely daffy when they heard about that, SET FOR A LOVE MATCH screamed one headline. Reporters interrupted the two at dinner one night, inquiring if it were true that they actually were engaged, or about to elope, or if Connors had, gasp, kissed the girl yet. "That's stupid," was Jimmy's nonanswer.
With each day that she would ride out from Mayfair in the chauffeured autos, roll around the roundabouts, then down Church Road and through the gates at Wimbledon, Chris Evert's feeling for the place increased. "When I dreamed of this," she said, "it was an enormous thing with, geez, all these people and a hush and me real nervous. But now that I'm here the people are just like me. Geez, Wimbledon is so realistic."
On the way to her semifinal rendezvous with Evonne Goolagong, the 20-year-old defending champion from Australia, Chris played against and defeated only girls from America. Meanwhile Goolagong, her delightful butterscotch face constantly twinkling, was having some international troubles. Uninspired, she almost lost twice. Russia's Olga Morozova had her down 5-3 in the third set and was serving for the match before Evonne prevailed, much to the chagrin of 27 Soviet coaches seated at courtside. Then France's Francoise Durr frightened the curly haired titlist by serving for both sets at 6-5 and 5-2. But Evonne survived to win.
So it was that on the Fourth of July ("Do they celebrate that over here?" Chris asked) the two girls got down to last-minute preparations for the semifinal clash that had been so long awaited from the outback to Fort Lauderdale's sand.
"I'm going to attack her forehand, try to play steady and let her make the errors," Chris said over strawberries on the eve of the confrontation. After Evonne returned to the club from shopping for a gown to wear at the Wimbledon ball, she revealed her own doubts.
"Chris is more consistent. It's no good playing her up and down the baseline. She's like a brick wall." Her coach, Vic Edwards, instructed Evonne to get to the net and hit short to the Evert backhand.
As the nooks and crannies of center court overflowed with spectators and thousands more massed outside to watch the electronic scoreboard, the girls waited to go on. Chris paced and smacked her chewing gum while Evonne sat across the locker room with her eyes shut tight for a full 20 minutes. Just as the girls walked out beneath the Royal Box, Chris inquired of her rival, "Wait, geez, how do you curtsy?"
"Just a bit of a bob," said the Australian.
The girls made an adorable mess of the curtsy (Evonne rushed, Chris hopped), but that was forgiven, and for the rest of the afternoon they put on a rare display of elegance and courage. The contrasting styles, the very tableau of the match, had already been compared to oaks-willows, poodles-panthers, and countless other combinations of animal, vegetable and mineral. Suffice it to say that the Evert-Goolagong confrontation drowned its certain lack of high quality with youth, freshness, drama, uncertainty and a hint of mint.
Through steadiness and those precision strokes of hers that seem to catch all the corners, Chris managed to win the first set 6-4 and lead in the second 3-0. But here, as John Newcombe was to say later, "the match hinged. When Evonne comes to the fore, she can go woosh and it's over." Would she produce or wouldn't she? Goolagong did. Her talent and flair for the game are, at present, beyond Chris' capacity. Evonne began displaying marvelous shots of grace and artistry. She swept the next seven games (evening the match in the process) with the loss of only 10 points.
Chris kept pounding away with that double-whammy backhand, and she went a break up twice in the final set, but a slow wilt was showing and she had to struggle to hold service in the eighth game. She was serving again at 4-5, 0-15, when she pushed Evonne far back and off-balance, whereupon the Australian girl leaned precariously and brushed a forehand dink cross court to win the point. Evonne opened her mouth in astonishment, while Chris slumped away as the applause swelled and swelled. The brilliant stroke, created of the moment, said volumes about the match, and two points later it was over, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to Goolagong: a match of lollipops and champagne of which there will be many more.
That match made an anticlimax of the final, in which Billie Jean King had only to withstand an unfriendly audience and some outrageous line calls to thrash Evonne 6-3, 6-3 and walk away with the championship.
Chris, Evonne and Rosie Casals, who was warned, scorned and ordered off court for wearing too much color—plus something that had to be a Virginia Slims cigarette ad—on her dress, received most of the notices. But if this was indeed the women's Wimbledon, it became Billie Jean King's own to savor.
Stung by her No. 2 ranking last season behind Goolagong in a year she called "the best of my life," Billie Jean in recent weeks had practically been shunted to the sidelines by the clamor over the kids. But she is by far the best player of the three—one of the best ever. Finally, for the first time in her career she is unchallenged as the queen of her art.
Billie Jean currently holds the American, French and world championships, and her position in tennis history is assured. This is to say nothing of her contributions to the game and the work she has done to create youth programs and general interest in girls' tennis, as well as opportunities for tiny Chrises and Evonnes everywhere. Last year she earned over $100,000, mostly on the Virginia Slims tour she singlehandedly carries on her back. Now she has won Wimbledon for the fourth time, placing her in the select company of six other women who have won at least four.
In her 12 years of play in the All-England singles, Billie Jean has been in seven finals, two semis and two quarterfinals. There is a year missing. When she was 17 and a little Miss Moffitt, she came to Wimbledon for the first time and, on center court, lost in the opening round.
Chris Evert has done better at 17, but what a long way she has to go.