It was in a brief and sparkling moment during one of those lazy twilights at the All England Club that the full significance of Billie Jean King at Wimbledon came sharply into focus. The singles finished, the ice lollies gone, all the emotional fires of another excruciating day in the heat having died, King and her mixed doubles partner, Sandy Mayer, concluded a spectacular rally with the South African pair, Bob Hewitt and Greer Stevens, on a close line call, the point being awarded to the Americans.
As Billie Jean went back to serve, the umpire called, "Advantage, Mrs. King," and the crowd let out a loud groan of disappointment. Billie Jean stopped in her tracks. She flipped the ball one way. She flipped the racket another. Then she fell over backward and lay supine for a while as the laughter and applause poured down from the stands. At 8 p.m. 14,000 people—a full house in Centre Court—were rooting against, clapping for and yukking it up with Billie Jean.
Later, after losing the match in three sets, and with it an opportunity to break the record of 19 titles at Wimbledon that she holds jointly with Elizabeth Ryan of the U.S. (1914-34), King came storming into the locker room wailing, "They hate me, they hate me." But, as she well knew, the reactions of the multitude were merely a continuation of the curious love-hate relationship they have carried on with Billie Jean since she tiptoed over the cushiony lawns of Wimbledon as Little Miss Moffitt back in 1961. To a people who thrive on indifference, Billie Jean always has dared to be different. She could wear all those awful rhinestone glasses, befriend all the monster rock singers and establish all the radical team leagues with the funny-colored courts she wants, the British will never know what to make of her.
King had one more chance at the record when she and Betty Stove met Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the final of the women's doubles. But Evert, already the singles champion, was on a hot streak and she and Martina won 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.
July 11, 1976
This particular fortnight was a strange experience for Billie Jean. Having retired from singles play after her Wimbledon victory in 1975, she came to England to have fun, lose five pounds and get in shape for the second half of World Team Tennis. She was more relaxed, less tense and, in the words of Evert, "super mellow."
"All the girls still put her on a pedestal," said Chris, "but there is a lot less pressure in the locker room with Billie Jean out of the singles. Before, she was so intense. She'd get this look—really mean. Now she's a whole lot friendlier."
"Wrong," said King. "They're friendlier. They used to be scared of me. I was obsessed. I'm not there anymore." King even stayed out of the hassle over the women's demand for equal pay and their threat to boycott Wimbledon next year, being content to offer moral support and advice to Evert, her successor as president of the WTA.
Off the court King was enjoying London—a city she dearly loves—as never before. She observed the ballet classes in Baron's Court. She spent time at the five-story "flat" of Elton John's manager, John Reid. She luxuriated-in three-hour restaurant dinners with her tour friend Julie Anthony. "It's so nice to have time," she said. "Time to spend with friends, to hoot and holler and eat my mushrooms and count my calories and not worry 'Oh God, I've got to go home to sleep.' "
Nevertheless, King arrived at the All England Club early every day to practice with Evert and Virginia Wade, whom she also coached from an upstairs window during Wade's tough fourth-round victory over 17-year-old Marisa Kruger of South Africa.
Getting as far as she did in the women's doubles was no easy task for Billie Jean if only because it is much more difficult to compete and do well in that event when a player is out of the singles.
"I miss hitting so many balls," Billie Jean said. "I forget what it feels like when I'm not out there on stage every day. I forget the pressure, the crises, the crowds, the action, the whole trip. I'm afraid I might get the royal elbow."
Instead, King wore her new dress with the strawberries at the hem and packed in the crowds every time she stepped on the grass.
"Did you realize Centre Court was completely filled the night you lost the mixed?" a man asked Billie Jean.
"No, not really," she said. "But I guess I've never seen it any other way."
And, of course, Billie Jean King never will.