Every Wimbledon fortnight the sports pages of London's newspapers, from the most lurid fish wraps and garbage-pail liners right up to the weighty Times and Guardian, bristle with examples of the hyperbolic school of sports writing. Passing shots become, for example, "genuine pearls, but not strung sufficiently together to make the desired necklace." A Wimbledon champion, wrote a Fleet Street sage, "is acknowledged as being tempered with steel from the most fiery furnace." In the fertile minds of London's press-box poets, matches are likely to be transformed into sword fights, ballets or Shakespearean tragedies.
Last Saturday the writers might have imagined Centre Court as a court of law, for what was taking place on that worn but still sacred lawn was something unique in sport—a championship match between two men who were fighting each other in enough multimillion-dollar lawsuits to give any judge a headache and any attorney an air of rapture.
It should have been just defending champion Jimmy Connors vs. Arthur Ashe in Wimbledon's first All-American final since 1947, when Jack Kramer creamed Tom Brown. But practically on Wimbledon eve still another suit was announced: Connors was suing Ashe for $3 million, charging libel and slander. As the litigants battled toward each other through the two halves of the draw, speculation dwelled on the legal aspects. Would the umpire wear a robe and powdered wig? Would Ashe be served a summons during the break after the odd game? Would they refuse to shake hands after the final point?
None of that happened. What did happen was a good old-fashioned tennis upset, one that did not require the ghost of Blackstone to heighten the drama. Connors came to the finals after blasting his way through six matches, including the annihilation of Roscoe Tanner in the semifinals, and his performances had drawn deserved rave reviews. But Ashe played magnificently on the big day, jumping into a comfortable lead, holding off Connors' expected recovery and winning his first Wimbledon title 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. The ¬£10,000 first prize boosted his 1975 earnings to $200,161—enough even for a legal defense fund.
If the women's side of the tournament did not provide any courtroom drama, it dripped with sentiment, for the remarkable Billie Jean King announced early on that this would be her last major singles tournament and that she would only be returning to Wimbledon for "hit and giggle tennis." For the first time in years the Centre Court crowds were with her as she made a gutsy comeback in the semifinals to beat Chris Evert 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 and then romped over newlywed Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the Friday final 6-0, 6-1. It should be noted that it was the second time this year that King has proclaimed her retirement.
The defeats of defending champions Connors and Evert wiped out the bettors who went for the so-called "lovebird double" in William Hill's gambling tent set up on the Tea Lawn. The young Americans were engaged last year when they won at Wimbledon, but they are no longer engaged or even dating, and when that news leaked out the second week of the tournament, it hit page one in the evening fish wraps, crowding out stories of the sinking pound. Connors' frequent companion at the tournament and on the town in the evenings was British actress Susan George. "We're just good friends," she said, insisting that American singer Jack Jones is "still my man." For his part, Connors insisted the lipstick smeared on his cheek came from his mother.
Connors might not have been misleading the tabloids about the lipstick, for his mother, Gloria Connors, is surely one of the most fervent rooters in the world. Several Wimbledons ago she had to be warned about excessive noise, so she has taken to clutching her rosary beads during her son's matches. There was a crisis, however, just before Jimmy's fifth-round match vs. Mexican Raul Ramirez. Gloria had left her beads at the hotel. In desperation she turned to an American photographer who had previously kidded her about her nervousness and displayed his own beads. Could she borrow them now? The photographer's mother had given them to him when he went into the Army years ago and he had not been without them since, but he made the sacrifice. For Gloria, it must have been like playing a big match with an untested racket.
To reach the final, Connors had a reasonably difficult gantlet to run. He beat John Lloyd, Vijay Amritraj, Mark Cox, Phil Dent, eighth-seeded Ramirez and 11th-seeded Tanner. He did it without losing a set and was forced into a tie breaker only in the first set with Amritraj. Connors was so overwhelming against Tanner—who evaluated Connors' play as "the best ever, I think even better than in the final last year"—that most people felt Ashe had no more chance than a scoop of ice cream in that fiery furnace. On Hill's board Saturday morning Connors was 3 to 20 to win and 9 to 10 to win in straight sets.
The last three men to go through Wimbledon without dropping a set were Don Budge in 1938, Tony Trabert in 1955 and Chuck McKinley in 1963 (when there were so many upsets he did not have to play another seed). If a bettor was loony enough to want Ashe in straight sets, the odds were 40 to 1. He was 23 to 5 to win.
Ashe, almost 32, had had anything but a smooth cruise. Bob Hewitt took him to four sets in the very first round. Britain's Graham Stilwell did the same in the fifth round, and many thought Ashe's four-set victory over Sweden's Bjorn Borg in the quarters was the result of Borg's groin-muscle injury.
"I continued to play because I thought that perhaps I was just a little bit stiff," said Borg. "It got worse and I had problems in moving up and down the court. I started feeling pain by the fifth game. It was difficult for me to go to the net. You have to get under the ball on grass but I couldn't do it. There was no way I could bend my knees, there was so much pain."
While Connors was breezing past Tanner in the semis, Ashe had a five-set struggle with Australian Tony Roche, losing a fourth-set tie breaker, then coming back to win the fifth 6-4. Despite all that trauma and the lawsuits, Ashe remained confident and serene. His goals for this year had been to win the finals of the World Championship Tennis circuit (which he did, beating Borg in May) and then Wimbledon. That he was the first black male ever to play in a Wimbledon final or that his legal costs were piling up didn't seem to affect him.
On Saturday, Ashe and Connors walked onto Centre Court together and made the customary bows to the royal box. Ashe was wearing his U.S.A. Davis Cup warmup jacket, perhaps to needle Jimmy, who has refused to play Davis Cup the last few years. Almost before people had settled in their seats, Ashe had broken Connors' serve three straight times and won the first set 6-1. So much for Connors joining Budge, Trabert and McKinley. So much for those who had backed Connors in straight sets.
Ashe was playing the way a junkball pitcher handles a baseball, softly returning serves, gently stroking his passing shots. But he was an Eddie Lopat with a Nolan Ryan fastball in reserve, and occasionally he let loose a streaking backhand or a deep top-spin forehand. Connors was struggling, netting many more shots than usual. Ashe, who has a reputation for lobbing poorly, was lobbing well and often, and serving calmly and confidently. He won the second set, again at 6-1.
Nobody believed this would continue, and it didn't. Connors, down a break in the third set, broke right back and went on to win. He then broke Ashe again in the fourth set to lead 3-0. The avalanche seemed to be starting. But Ashe, as cool as ever, broke back twice to take the set and match.
As tradition demands, Ashe came to the net to shake hands, but before he did he turned to the players' guest box and triumphantly held up his right fist to his friend and agent, Donald Dell, a defendant in one of Connors' suits.
"I always thought I would win," he said afterward. "I was pretty confident. I'd been playing well."
In the women's singles, the usual four ended up in the semis: King, Evert, Margaret Court and Goolagong Cawley, who had beaten British heroine Virginia Wade in a splendid quarterfinal match. It was probably Wade's finest Wimbledon and it took Cawley at her flowing best to stop her. Then, in the Aussie side of the semis, Cawley had a fairly easy time with Court, 6-4, 6-4.
In the American semis Evert, who had won 28 straight matches since losing to Wade in Philadelphia last April, met a player she had never beaten on grass. When Chris won the first set 6-2, it appeared that the older generation (King is 31, Court almost 33) was bowing out meekly. But King bowing out meekly would be like the Rolling Stones singing a lullaby. She fell behind a break in the second set, then went to work, breaking back twice to win 6-2. Once again in the third set she fell behind and once again she fought back, winning five games in a row to take the decider 6-3.
"I don't know how I got out of that one," she said. "I just love it here. I love that Centre Court. I wish I could hug it sometimes."
With King her best and Cawley playing back to the form that helped her win at Wimbledon in 1971, the women's final could have been a classic. Instead it was a fiasco. King played well but Cawley was a shadow of what she had been against Wade and Court. The Wimbledon historians had to go back in the record book to 1951 to find a women's final as one-sided as King's 6-0, 6-1 victory, and to 1911 to find one worse.
"What a way to end my career by winning the singles here at Wimbledon," said King. "I think I'm the most fortunate woman athlete who ever lived."
Her victory gave the British trivia experts a chance to show off their knowledge of the championship rolls. These gentlemen love to tell such stories as how the tournament was started back in 1877 to raise money for repairs to a horse-drawn roller and how that roller still sits at one end of Centre Court because it is too big to remove. Or how a ball struck in anger once hit the rail of the royal box. Scandalous! Anyway, the trivialists had a happy time with King. It was her 19th title, equaling the record set by Elizabeth Ryan (all in doubles) from 1914 to 1934. (Ryan, now 83, sent King a congratulatory message.) It was her sixth singles title, putting her in a tie with Suzanne Lenglen but still two behind Helen Wills Moody, who was 8-1 in Wimbledon finals compared to King's 6-3.
King really had a good chance to pull off her third Wimbledon triple and become the alltime trophy collector in that department. She and mixed-doubles partner Roche did reach the third round, but Roche had developed a sore stomach muscle and chose to drop out and save himself for singles. In women's doubles King and longtime partner Rosemary Casals were seeded second but lost in the semis.
It was a very nice fortnight for American youth. Women's doubles was won by Kazuko Sawamatsu of Japan in partnership with a 19-year-old Californian, Ann Kiyomura, another in a long line of fine female players from that state (King, Casals, Ryan, Moody, Hazel Wightman, Helen Jacobs, Alice Marble, Maureen Connolly, etc.). No seeded team reached the semis of men's doubles, which was won by Alex Mayer, 23, and Vitas Gerulaitis, 19. Curiously, neither is ranked in the U.S. top 15 and they were one of the worst doubles teams on the WCT circuit earlier this year.
Jimmy Connors, at 22, is no gray-beard, either. "I walked in here with my head high, I walk out with my head high," he said after his loss to Ashe. "And I'll be back here next year and my head will be even higher."