By the time Billie Jean King and Chris Evert got to Centre Court last Saturday, the sacred grass was just about as tattered as all the other traditions at Wimbledon. Things were a bit scruffy, as they would say at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club—hardly the setting for anything remarkable. But right there, in that brown and trampled scene, Billie Jean (see cover) put on an immaculate exhibition of tennis. Every move was crisp and clean in a first set that must rank as one of the gems of her career. She lost only nine points while beating Chris 6-0, and when she followed that with a 7-5 win she had captured her second straight Wimbledon title and her fifth in the eight times she had reached the finals there. Scruffy, indeed.
The performance was the one flawless highlight in a definitely flawed fortnight. Before Billie Jean and Chris curtsied in unison to the Royal Box, Wimbledon had been on its uppers.
One could scarcely grasp the tradition-shattering enormity of it all. Bookies were not only taking bets on Ilie Nastase's chances of winning, but also on just when he would bend for a low volley and split his form-fitting shorts. Fried onions were banned from the concession stand under Court One because of odors that offended the spectators above. The male hero turned out to be no classicist of form and fashion, but a Swedish Beatle, 17-year-old Bj√∂rn Borg, around whom swarmed coveys of squealing teeny-boppers adorned in such inspirational garb as sweat shirts proclaiming, "Borg is Beautiful." And more: hometown hero Roger Taylor, who lives by Wimbledon Common, committed 20 double faults on Centre Court, maybe the worst performance since 1877 when both finalists served sidearm. Which led to the final distress: for the first time there was an all-Communist men's final. Whither Britain, whither Australia, whither Empire?
Part of this occurred, of course, because Wimbledon was struck—not by the ball boys or hedge clippers, but by nearly all the leading men pros, members of the Association of Tennis Professionals. The tournament had banned Nikki Pilic because his own national federation had suspended him for not showing up to play Davis Cup matches for Yugoslavia. In turn, Pilic's ATP union brothers boycotted the tournament, a move that was treated by most of the British press like a plot to steal the crown jewels. Thus when Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia, originally the 15th seed, beat Russia's Alex Metreveli 6-1, 9-8, 6-3 in a dreary men's final, he joined the honor roll of champions all right, but with a huge asterisk beside his name.
July 15, 1973
There were other breaks with the past. This will be remembered as the Wimbledon in which Billie Jean King helped form a union of her own, the Women's Tennis Association, and became its president. Then, after she had won her fifth singles title, ninth doubles title (with Rosie Casals) and third mixed-doubles title (with Owen Davidson) for her second triple crown at Wimbledon, she went back to eating her beloved ice cream—vanilla, which somehow does not seem quite right for her. Early in the year she had polished off a three-scoop sundae in Miami and vowed she would not touch the stuff again until after Wimbledon.
There are not as many esteemed names in women's tennis as there are in men's, but at least the women's Big Four was on the scene. The ingenues: Evert and Evonne Goolagong of Australia, who, according to one frustrated rival, "just saunters around at the same happy speed, hitting winners all over the place." And the old pros: Australian Margaret Smith Court, three-time Wimbledon champ, and King, at 29 playing in her 13th Wimbledon.
They were the four top seeds and they came through the draw to fight it out on Centre Court in the semifinals. King, Evert and Court had endured some three-set struggles along the way, but Goolagong had been gamboling and straight-setting everybody she met, as comfortable on the grass as a wood nymph.
The fact that the semis came on the Fourth of July should have been a warning to the Aussies. Evert battled top-seeded Court first and obviously erased from her mind the nightmare Paris final a month before in which she was serving against Court for the French championship with a 5-3 lead and blew it. This time Evert won a statistically weird contest, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1, helped by her own passing shots and radar-guided lobs and Court's nine double faults. Evert played smoothly but Court was clearly not her dominating self, perhaps ground down by a heavy tournament schedule and the proximity of Bobby Riggs (playing in the elderly gents' doubles where he and partner H. K. Richards were eliminated in the third round). King then marched into the hot arena and did not play particularly well but beat Goolagong 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 to set up the first all-American women's final since Althea Gibson beat Darlene Hardin 1957.
"Too bad we don't have little American flags to wave," said a U.S. journalist. "Maybe we should all wave our American Express cards."
(Across the Atlantic in Fort Lauderdale about this time the phone was ringing at the home of Jim Evert. He answered and a voice said, "Daddy, I won!" Whereupon the elder Evert said, "Who is this?" "It's Chris," the voice replied. Proud papa later explained the exchange: young daughter Jeanne was playing in the national amateur clay championships in Chattanooga. "Their voices sound a lot alike," he muttered.)
This was Chris Evert's second Wimbledon—she lost in the semis last year and returned to Florida feeling blue—and she prepared for it by traveling the European circuit with her mother and her tennis-playing boyfriend, Jimmy Connors, whom she met in England last year. Besides the near-miss in Paris, she lost in the Rome final to Goolagong, got only three games from Virginia Wade at Nottingham, and at Queen's Club in London lost to Julie Heldman for the first time in five years. It was not exactly a disastrous tour, but it was not what many had expected of the queen of Florida clay. The word filtered out: get Chris away from palm trees and she is anything but invincible. Everybody already knew that she could not volley and that her overhead was not notable for its zing.
After her upset of Court, any depression from her European misadventures was wiped away, and the embarrassing questions about when she and Connors would get engaged were easier to cope with, though Evert still blushed and became annoyed.
"I'd hoped that one day I'd be in a Wimbledon final, but I never thought I'd make it this year," she said on Wednesday. "Now it's all worth it to me. Reaching the finals at Wimbledon has made it all worth it."
Evert had a few things going for her besides her own crisp ground strokes. Father Vincent Kelly, principal of her high school in Fort Lauderdale, was on hand and presumably praying, and the Wimbledon crowd would be with her. A few years ago things were different. The fans had loved feisty Billie Jean Moffitt when she had first turned up as a 17-year-old, but now that she is a feisty conglomerate—camps, pro shops, shoe and racket endorsements, the new union, tennis clothes, another book in preparation, a personal secretary—they would prefer she didn't win so bloody much. One sympathetic columnist felt the need to urge the Wimbledon fans to "be nice to Billie Jean," and King herself swore she saw some boys wearing Billie Jean King T shirts.
But King did not really need rooters. She has a better all-round game than Evert and far more experience. The King-Evert match was set for Friday, but it started raining just before play was to begin and the day's program was canceled. Since there are no rain checks at Wimbledon, the customers had to be content with watching the ground crew crank up a tent to cover Centre Court. The match was moved over to Saturday—to be played before the men's final—and it did not take up much time once it began. King's volleys were too deep and hard, Evert made far too many unforced errors and that startling first set was over in 17 minutes. Evert did put on a better show in the second set, but the issue never seemed in doubt.
When it was done, King talked about her passion for ice cream and of a 6-0, 6-1 loss she had suffered at the hands of Evert in Florida last year. "I've never forgotten that," she said. "I didn't hit one bloomin' ball on the court. Today I wanted to prove to the people at home that I could play, too."
Meanwhile, on the men's side, one benefit of the boycott was that it gave a few young players the chance to make names for themselves, and there is no place in tennis more fitting than Wimbledon for name-making. Bj√∂rn Borg, with his good looks, shy manner and long blond mane, stole the attention of most of the schoolgirls from Nastase—and with his two-fisted backhand and top-spin forehand, stole a few matches, too.
When Borg changed ends during a match, the Beatlemaniacs would cry out, "You're so sweet!" When he defeated German Karl Meiler, such a loud squeal arose that it sounded like an oldtime Frank Sinatra concert.
His dramatic matches made Borg even more appealing. It took him five sets to beat Meiler, five more to defeat Hungarian Szabolcs Baranyi and five to lose to Roger Taylor (the last set was 7-5). Sweden's Davis Cup coach, Lennart Bergelin, watched over Borg.
"All this goes to the head," said Bergelin, "so I get him up every morning to run. That clears the head."
Borg played ice hockey almost every winter day of his boyhood until he was 14, but he also dabbled in tennis at least as early as nine, using a racket his father won as first prize in a table-tennis tournament in his hometown 10 miles from Stockholm. Borg was reared on clay courts and has a lot to learn about grass: his high-kicking second serve is suicidal and he needs a little work on his low volleys.
The second young man to seize the chance to shine up his reputation was Alex Mayer, the NCAA champion from Stanford whose father was once a highly ranked tennis player in Hungary and Yugoslavia. Alexander Mayer now runs a tennis camp in Mount Freedom, N.J. and will soon be sending another son to play tennis at Stanford. Young Mayer shocked Nastase in the fourth round, beating the volatile and sore-backed Rumanian in four sets with some superb service returns and volleying. When Papa Mayer heard about it, he grabbed a plane for London and arrived in time to see his son play eighth-seeded Jurgen Fassbender. Mayer lost the first two sets but struggled back to win, sparing himself a long critique from dad, who had taken copious notes on his program in bright green ink.
"He knows about Centre Court jitters," said the elder Mayer. "I've been raising him for this since he was two."
Mayer lost in the semis to the Soviet star, Metreveli; in the other half of the draw the Czech clay-court specialist, Kodes, beat Taylor, the gloomy Yorkshire-man who has the demeanor to star as Heathcliff in the next movie remake of Wuthering Heights. They played a long, tough match that was interrupted by drizzle with Taylor leading 5-4 in the fifth set and Kodes serving. They resumed 40 minutes later, Kodes won three straight games and the match, and gone were Britain's hopes that Taylor, who had defied the union and entered Wimbledon, would be the first British player to win the men's singles in more than 30 years. To be precise, the last time was 1936, when Fred Perry beat Germany's Baron Gottfried von Cramm.
To illustrate how second-rate the men's field was this year, three of the four semifinalists were from Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis tour—Taylor, Kodes and Metreveli—but only one of them had made the WCT championship tournament in Dallas. That was Taylor, who barely squeaked in and then lost to Ken Rosewall in the first round. Metreveli failed to win a WCT tournament and had never even made the finals of a major event.
Kodes' straight sets victory was only slightly more thrilling than two counter girls from the tea lawn coming out and throwing Bath buns and chocolate éclairs at each other across the net. The press box was more than half empty through most of it.
There was no indication, however, that the people in the stands felt robbed. At the start of the fortnight a London columnist wrote, "...Wimbledon will prove in the next two weeks that it is bigger than the little men who have tried to reduce it to nothing." A bit of Colonel Blimp bombast, true, but he was right about the spectator loyalty.
Even though most of the world's best players were long gone and even though the BBC offered hours of color telecasts live and on tape every day, it seemed as if everybody from John o' Groat's south to Land's End was trying to get through the gates of the All England Club. Queueing up politely is a national pastime in Britain, and this was quadruply evident at Wimbledon. People would stand in line for hours, sometimes waiting overnight in a drizzle, for tickets to get into the grounds—then stand in line again for the privilege of packing themselves 15 and 16 rows deep in the sardine-can standing-room sections of Centre Court. Many who could not get into the grounds stood outside and followed the progress of the matches on the scoreboard.
Attendance for the 13 days was 300,172, second-highest in history. Such passionate tennis buffs deserve better than Kodes-Metreveli. If they should ever get a British champion again, Admiral Nelson will have to give up his pedestal in Trafalgar Square—or at least move over. And come what may, there will always be an All England.