Really big news spurted out all over the place at the $150,000 Virginia Slims Championship staged last week in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. On the literary front it was learned that Julie Heldman is writing a tennis instructional for women, with the working title They Also Serve. The fashion parade was led by England's Virginia Wade, who actually won a match wearing a dress of frosted turquoise lame with a Marie Antoinette diamond-necklace neckline (rhinestones, really). When she strolled on court she looked as though she had chopped a few feet off a slinky evening gown before picking up her rackets. Then there was the latest episode of the sports world's favorite soap opera, Chris Evert, Backcourt Wife.
In our last installment Chris and her tennis-star sweetheart, Jimmy Connors, had called off their wedding, and Connors was seen squiring that cutie of the car commercials, Mean Mary Jean. Well, America, this is to report that Mary Jean, the White Rock girl and Betty Crocker are all out of the picture and Miss Evert is back in. On the good authority of the society editor of the Los Angeles Times, the two champions were seen "holding hands while shopping the furniture room settings" at an L.A. store.
The sportswriters had a few tidbits to write about, too. Evert cruised through eight sets with the loss of only nine games to make her way into Saturday afternoon's nationally televised finals, where her opponent was the 18-year-old Czechoslovakian, Martina Navratilova. Evert started slowly, fell behind and then began to play aggressively, even at times charging to the net, an area heretofore about as familiar to her as the left bank of the Irrawaddy. She beat Navratilova 6-4, 6-2.
Her reward was a check for $40,000, boosting her 1975 women's-tour earnings to $121,450, which will buy a lot of love seats. Her poise and an array of laser-beam ground strokes invalidated her pre-tournament statement: "I don't consider myself No. 1 right now...there are four or five tough women players. It's so close that I don't think any one person stands out."
Increased depth on the women's circuit is a recurring theme from the players and their publicists. There were six different winners in the 10 Slims tournaments leading up to the championship in Los Angeles: Evert, Navratilova, Wade, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, just back in sneakers after having her second child. Evert competed in eight tournaments, won three and was runner-up in two more, but there was no undisputed czarina, as Evert was last year and Court in 1973.
The women had more than depth to crow about. Each of their 10 tournaments offered $75,000 in prize money and, for the first time, six of the 10 finals were carried by CBS, which claimed it was beating the NBC-televised men's matches in the ratings by a two-to-one margin. Was it only in 1970 that King and her little band of "women's lob" radicals broke away from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association and launched the first Slims "tour"? Yes, it was. In five years two bitty tournaments offering less prize money than a spelling bee have blossomed into a big business. They should call it Virginia Fats.
The L.A. championship, however, was not as star-studded as it might have been. The semi-retired King, who is up to her new Afro hair-do in TV work, magazine publishing and selling toothpaste, had not played in enough tournaments to qualify. Court was suffering from a muscle tear in a calf and decided not to risk further injury. That left Evert, Navratilova, Wade and Goolagong as the top seeds, and that was exactly the order in which they finished.
There were many who thought that the challenger with the best chance to knock off top-seeded Evert was the 29-year-old Wade, a mathematics graduate of the University of Sussex who won the first U.S. Open in 1968, the Italian Open in '71 and the Australian in '72. Wade went into L.A. on a hot streak, having won the previous two tournaments. In Dallas she had been down four match points to Navratilova in the final and fought back to win. In Philadelphia she beat Goolagong, King and Evert on consecutive days.
Her success was pleasing to the circuit's official dress designer, Ted Tinling, a tall, bald Englishman with prominent ears that make him look like a gargantuan pixie. He claims that he does not root for anyone, but like most of his countrymen he has often seen Wade tighten up and blow a match at sacred Wimbledon, where each summer she carries her tennis-loving country's hopes on her back.
"Perhaps she has learned a bit from Navratilova in the last few weeks," said Tinling in Los Angeles. "Martina keeps the pressure on her opponents, whereas Virginia has had a tendency to let the spark die."
"I must say I'm playing well right now for me," said Wade with a smile. "Long may it last."
It lasted long enough to carry her through what was easily the finest match of the tournament. The first day was single-elimination and Wade knocked out willowy Wendy Overton 6-3, 6-1. Then the tournament moved into round-robin play, with the eight survivors divided into two groups. Wade beat Mona Schallau, then met budding author Heldman.
Heldman won the first set in a tie breaker 7-6, but Wade took the second 6-2 and seemed well on her way to winning her 13th match in a row. But all of a sudden Heldman won five straight games and led 5-1. Tinling left his seat to call the BBC in London and Wade saw him go. She admitted later that she relaxed at that point.
She then broke Heldman's serve, held her own and trailed 3-5 going into what turned out to be a marvelous ninth game. Heldman had match point five times, just one point from a big upset, and could not get it. Wade broke her, held serve, broke Heldman again, held again and won 7-5.
"She couldn't hit a ball in," said Wade. "She was shaking like a leaf."
"Choked on a match point," said Heldman. "I choked. I don't have a killer instinct."
Homicidal or not, Heldman went on to beat Schallau, lost to Olga Morozova and went home with $8,000.
The next night Wade was beaten by Navratilova in straight sets and her streak ended. But she had been playing some of the best tennis of her life, and this might be the year that Fleet Street can dust off its largest type for her long-awaited Wimbledon triumph. But then, Evert and Navratilova will be there, too.
The Czech girl is an interesting combination of cockiness, surliness and good cheer, which is understandable in an Eastern European teen-ager who has to undergo at least one interview a day. She is built along the lines of a Pilsener keg and constantly has to watch her diet. At least one of the outfits she wore last week appeared to be two sizes too small.
"Billie Jean was chubbier at 18 than Martina," says a veteran player. "Billie Jean had big legs, big legs."
Navratilova is probably the strongest woman in tennis, stronger even than Court, and she moves deftly, always following her left-handed serves and ground strokes to the net and looking to sock away volleys. Her forehand is lethal, so opponents tend to hit to her backhand, which is erratic. When she is getting her first serve in, it is difficult for her foe not to hit a high return that Navratilova swats with gusto.
In this, her third year on the Slims tour, this style has paid off nicely. She has a U.S. agent, Fred Barman, who has helped line up racket and shoe-endorsement deals for her. Unlike the U.S.S.R.'s Morozova, who forks over all her winnings to her association, Navratilova this year will be allowed to keep 50% of hers. Ten or 20% after expenses goes to the Czechoslovakian tennis association, and the U.S. slurps up another 30% for taxes.
Navratilova earned more korunas on this tour ($96,762.50 worth) than her father will earn in his lifetime, but she is getting sensitive about money questions.
"I really like the United States, but that's one thing I don't like," she says. "Everybody's crazy about money."
While Navratilova was dominating her half of the round-robin competition, beating Heldman, Wade and Schallau, Evert was toying with her opponents each night as boyfriend Connors looked on approvingly from the stands, shouting "Ole!" after especially good shots. She allowed Janet Newberry just one game, Marcie Louie one, Morozova two and, in the Friday-night feature, five to Goolagong. Up till then she and Goolagong were 9-9 lifetime against each other.
After she had beaten Goolagong, Evert telephoned her father/coach in Florida even though it was 2 a.m. there. "The only thing that surprised me was that she didn't come up to the net against me," said Evert. "Last year she came to the net and that's why she beat me."
There is good reason not to come to the net against Evert. Her two-fisted backhand and excellent forehand passing shots leave opponents futilely waving at optic-yellow balls as they whiz by. It seems that Evert's ground strokes land only within a two-foot-wide strip on either side of the court. The rest of the court she doesn't need except when she's serving—a serve, incidentally, that one fellow pro says is "not the marshmallow it was two years ago." On the other hand, fail to rush the net against Evert and it's like playing tennis with a wall. The wall never loses.
Thus the final was a puncher-counter-puncher battle. Navratilova, who always rushes the net, vs. Evert, two years her senior, who is content to stay back at the baseline patiently stroking away, just as she has been doing for the last 14 years.
"I think Chris should win this one," said Wade before the match. "She has the ability to discipline herself, especially since she lost last week. On the other hand, Chris has gotten twitchy playing Martina."
Evert seemed anything but twitchy in the locker room. She was drying her hair with a blower, Navratilova was working on her hair nearby, records were playing, Rosie Casals was showing off her new mongrel dog, Midnight. It might have been the start of a pajama party instead of the beginning of the end of a $150,000 tournament.
Navratilova distinguished herself in the match with some acrobatic volleys and half-volleys, and she made Evert struggle to hold service several times, but Evert was clearly superior, whether hitting precision passing shots, lobbing perfectly or, yes, volleying at the net.
"Oh, God!" Navratilova yelled at herself, in English. "Late, late!" and "You're so dumb!"
How courteous to the fans and the press that she should berate herself in English.
The match was over in one hour, six minutes. Evert had won her third Virginia Slims championship in the four years of its existence. Her $40,000 was the highest first prize in the history of women's tennis. She had all that money, all those steady shots and Jimmy Connors, too, and it was only early April of her 21st year.