It was the richest women's tennis tournament in history, the $100,900 Virginia Slims Championship at Boca Raton, Fla., and just about the whole cast of Women's Lob was there to chase after the peachy $25,000 first prize or one of the smaller plums. Francoise Durr and her dog Topspin, Margaret Court with her husband and eight-month-old son in tow and all those Marcies, Kerrys and Wendys in short frocks of tangerine and watermelon pink. The troupe was led by a majorette, the self-proclaimed "old lady," Billie Jean King, 28.
There were a few amateurs, too, most notably Chris Evert, forbidden by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to earn a cent with her rackets until she turns 18 on Dec. 21. Going into the battle at Boca Raton, this innocent child hacking away with the most lethal strokes since Lizzie Borden has lost out on $22,000 for the year, leavings that anybody would be glad to snatch up. Billie Jean, under no such benevolent protection, won $117,000 in 1971, putting her $75,000 up on the richest woman golfer, Kathy Whitworth. and actually ahead of any American tennis player—male or female. This year she had socked away a mere $106,201 in winnings up to last week and had already clinched the Silver Ginny award for amassing the most points on the circuit.
Billie Jean well might have added the Virginia Slims' $25,000 to her total and been wallowing in her money vault like Scrooge McDuck, except for one thing: the court surface at the plush Boca Raton Hotel is clay, and Chris Evert is as comfortable with clay as a sculptress. Three out of five times she had beaten Billie Jean, and all three victories were on the slow Florida clay that inhibits King's serve-and-volley game. There was another bad sign for the pro star, too. On one afternoon during the week her husband Larry, a good club player, had been extended to three sets in a pickup match before beating Chris' little brother John, age 11.
Sure enough, in Saturday's semifinal under a hot sun. Evert beat King in straight sets 6-4, 6-2. King suffered a leg cramp late in the second set, and put up no contest the last few points. Whether it was the clay, cramps, the Chrissie-loving crowd, weariness from 10 months of hard work or—as hinted by husband Larry—a case of mononucleosis, the tennis King got a royal beating. The next day she forfeited the consolation match to Durr and with it the $2,000 difference between third and fourth places. She was No. 1 in the world, but still No. 2 in Florida.
October 23, 1972
In the final. Evert beat Australian pro Kerry Melville 7-5, 6-4 and boosted her year's hypothetical winnings to $47.000, which was not bad at all for a gum-chewing high school senior. Most of last week's $25,000 jackpot stayed right in the pockets of Virginia Slims and the other sponsors, but a donation may be made to Evert's school in nearby Fort Lauderdale.
The tennis was good and should have held everyone's undivided attention, but a tournament is not worthy of the name these days unless it is spiced by haggling. The show at Boca had a juicy squabble, one that might result in two women's pro tours in 1973, something comparable to the Ice Follies and the Ice Capades, or Roller Derby and Roller Games. Already, Chris Evert finds herself uncomfortably in the middle.
The opposing forces are the USLTA, which intends to get into the business of promoting women's pro tournaments for the first time, and the new Women's International Tennis Federation (WITF), which has most of the big-name pros—King, Melville, Court, Nancy Gunter, Rosemary Casals—and a fat bankroll from Virginia Slims cigarettes and other sponsors. WITF has announced a 13-tournament winter-spring tour with prize money of $400,000, up $128,000 from this year. The USLTA has also circulated a list of tournaments, including Forest Hills and the Maureen Connolly Blinker tourney in Dallas. Details were hazy, and a WITF partisan called it "the phantom circuit: no cities, no sponsors, no players."
If the two factions do not get together, and they were miles apart after talks in Boca Raton, the USLTA probably will arrange once again to ban the women pros from Forest Hills and Wimbledon and suspend them for the fifth time in two years.
The brains behind the WITF belong to Gladys Heldman, a former calculus teacher, mother of pro Julie Heldman and publisher of World Tennis magazine. She is an aggressive, self-appointed gadfly of the sport who does not worry about the Eastern brass. In fact, she plans to throw a Fifth-Suspension party. While others use the terms Women's Lob or WITF, she calls her troops "the little broads." Earlier this year, when she was still on good terms with the USLTA, outgoing President Bob Colwell walked into her house one day and she threw her arms around him.
"Bob, I dig USLTA presidents," she said.
"Yeah," he said, "you dig their graves."
It was she who put the Virginia Slims circuit together two years ago. In 1970 the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles offered a $12,500 first prize to the men, only $1,500 to the women. Eight of the top women pros asked Heldman to organize a replacement tournament for them; on short notice, with cigarette promotion money to help, she put together a $7,500 event in Houston, her headquarters. Out of that grew the pro circuit, which won begrudging sanction from the USLTA between suspensions. King, who had won less than $40,000 in 1969, soon became a tycoon.
Orange and Merion, two tradition-rich grass tournaments, have each lately offered a total of $1,000 in prizes to the women, but it seems unlikely that many top players will bother with such paltry sums anymore. Heldman has organized satellite and qualifying tournaments that hold much more promise. For example, Wendy Overton, a tall, attractive blonde from Florida, started as a qualifier, worked herself up and this year, although never reaching a final or managing to beat King, finished the tour as the eighth-leading money winner with $22,350.
"It takes so much of my time," said Gladys Heldman of the circuit, "that I have no time to swim, play tennis or even drink anymore."
The USLTA announced at Boca Raton that it had given "final authority" over women's tennis to Edy McGoldrick, from Wellesley, Mass., who is lively, personable and well organized enough to manage six children and a 14-room house without servants. The pros like her and Heldman likes her, but few of them believe that the male officials of the USLTA will back her decisions.
Into this mess by Dec. 21 or sooner steps Chris Evert, who is, Australia's Evonne Goolagong notwithstanding, the hottest property still uncommitted. If the USLTA does come up with a circuit. Evert may well join it—along with perhaps Goolagong and Virginia Wade of Great Britain—because she wants to have a shot at winning Wimbledon and Forest Hills. But she refused to announce a decision at Boca Raton despite pressure from the WITF and the press to do so.
"She isn't being fair to tennis to wait until Dec. 21," said King. "I wanted to play at Wimbledon as badly as anybody this year but was willing to forgo it to help tennis. The women don't have it made, not yet. We'd like to have her. Chris is a star. She's young. People want to see her play."
Would King consider playing a USLTA circuit? Ha!
"I'd rather go with the group that has been behind me for two years when times were rough than one that's just trying to jump on the bandwagon," she said.
"The little broads will stick together," said Gladys Heldman.