In the more than slightly bizarre world of contemporary professional sport—a world of fast bucks, tax write-offs, media campaigns and manufactured superstars—one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been women's tennis. Coming almost out of nowhere, the women have marched past the men (heaving bouquets at Bobby Riggs as they did so) in attracting media attention and public interest.
So it was a cinch that the faddish publishing industry was going to get on the bandwagon, and it has, but the happy surprise is that it has done so with two books several cuts above the ordinary level of the genre: A Long Way, Baby, by Grace Lichtenstein (Morrow, $6.95), and Billie Jean, by Billie Jean King with Kim Chapin (Harper & Row, $6.95).
The books complement each other niftily. Lichtenstein's is a chatty, gossipy, balanced account by an experienced New York Times reporter of how women's tennis zoomed into the big time and how "a new breed of career women...[was] carving out a place...in what, throughout history, had been strictly a man's world—that of the sports superstar." The King-Chapin collaboration has resulted in an unusually candid sports autobiography, as sassily outspoken as its subject and filled with the excitement and tension of big-league tennis.
Lichtenstein's book is subtitled "Behind the Scenes in Women's Pro Tennis," and the assertion is not exaggerated. The author followed the women's tour through the 1973 season, which was climaxed by Billie Jean's trouncing of Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome extravaganza, and she was able to get close enough to the players to convey a sense of the kind of people they arc and the kind of life they lead.
July 21, 1974
Herself a front-line feminist, Lichtenstein was nevertheless disturbed initially to discover that the players "were jocks first, women second," but as she got to know them better she came to like and respect them. "They didn't know much about feminism on an intellectual level, but in their gut they had the rest of us beat two sets to love." That, she says, is because they are dedicated professionals, intensely self-disciplined athletes and skilled entertainers—women who are making it in a tough, demanding world.
They have had to be tough to attain the stature they now have. In 1970 eight women broke away from the pro tour in protest against prize money unfairly distributed between women and men, and signed up with Gladys Heldman for what was to become the Virginia Slims circuit. Establishing that tour was hard work, but it ended with thumping success in 1973, when a treaty was reached with the USLTA.
If these women are firm-willed professionals, they are also vulnerable human beings, with the predictable physical difficulties (everything from trick knees to menstrual cramps); sex lives (quite active in some cases but not, rumor to the contrary, wildly lesbian); and petty jealousies (the sudden prominence and china-doll good looks of Chris Evert have not enhanced her popularity within the sisterhood).
Lichtenstein portrays them all, both the stars and the second-liners, with sympathy and understanding, but she focuses on Billie Jean, whom she describes as "a racquet-bearing Wonder Woman leading the Amazons." There is no doubt, Lichtenstein makes clear, that the current triumphs of women's tennis are Billie Jean's; her vigorous leadership and incessant prodding forced her fellow professionals into a militancy they might not otherwise have achieved, after which she clinched the deal for them by taking Mr. Riggs to the cleaners.
And Billie Jean knows it. She makes an attempt or two at modesty in her own book, but she is refreshingly willing to acknowledge her central role. Of the Riggs match she writes, "Sure, the match grabbed everybody, but people had been reacting to me very strongly long before that. It began, really, about the end of 1971, after the Virginia Slims circuit had been under way for almost a year. Women especially started to look up to me then, I think because they realized how much the tour and I had fought to get where we were."
The fight exacted its toll of her, as tights do. She exhausted herself on "tennis, interviews, promotion; tennis, interviews, promotion." Her marriage has had its serious strains. She concedes that she and her husband Larry came close to separating toward the end of last year, and that three years ago she had an abortion, "A decision I've never regretted," but one that caused no little awkwardness when she inadvertently let it become public knowledge.
Implicitly agreeing with Lichtenstein, Billie Jean acknowledges that she is no firebrand on women's rights. "When it comes to Women's Lib, I'm pretty much of a pragmatist, and I'd bet that most other women are too.... To me, Women's Liberation means that every woman ought to be able to pursue whatever career or personal life-style she chooses as a full and equal member of society without fear of sexual discrimination."
When you come right down to it, that is not a bad definition of what Women's Lib is all about. And Billie Jean King and her rivals on the court have clearly succeeded in exemplifying it.