AN AMBUSH ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

Billie Jean King had won three straight tournaments, but once again her nemesis was Chris Evert, who beat her to win the Colgate
November 14, 1977

Chris Evert says she's going to cut back on her tennis-playing schedule next year, ease the pressure a bit. The rest of the women on the pro tour, especially Billie Jean King, think that's a great idea. Take all the time you want, kid. Billie Jean, battling to come back, met Chris, eager to take off, in the finals of the Colgate Series Championship last week and finished a decisive second. The matches, held at the Mission Hills Country Club near Palm Springs, included the top eight players in the world according to Colgate's 24-tournament rating system. Evert needed some luck to reach the final, but once there she showed why the women hope she has a lovely—and extended—vacation.

There was reason to believe King had a chance. She had been playing well. Evert just so-so, and the surface was cement, not as much to King's liking as Wimbledon grass but far better than Forest Hills clay. At 1-2 in the first set, Evert serving, King won three straight points to lead love-40. Three chances to break serve. But hitting shots to the absolute back corners of the court, Evert climbed back and won the game. "I took a good look at her when I won that game," said Evert later. "She seemed affected by it."

Destroyed would be more like it. Evert rattled off nine of the next 10 games on her way to winning 6-2, 6-2. Not once did King break service and at no time did she resemble the player who had raced through three opponents to reach the final.

"It's because Chris plays better against me than she does against anyone else," King said later.

"That's true," agreed Evert. "I still think of Billie Jean as the favorite. After all, when I first started playing her, I was just a 16-year-old kid and she was already a legend."

One month ago there seemed little chance that the legend would qualify for the tournament. She was No. 10 in the Colgate standings in early October, but successive wins in Phoenix, Brazil and Puerto Rico got her to Palm Springs in style. In fact, she wound up third on the list behind Evert and Betty Stove, a stroke of good fortune that put her into a round-robin bracket with Stove, Wendy Turnbull and Kerry Reid, a laugher compared to the other half—Evert, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova and Dianne Fromholtz.

King seemed delighted with her role as the aging veteran on the comeback trail. The evening before play began, when the women players received huge bonus checks from Colgate—Evert's was $100,000 for finishing first on the point list—King was ebullient. And after winning her first match, while Evert was losing hers, she was even more exhilarated.

"But I'm playing on borrowed time," she said. "Young players look to the future. I've been there. I'll quit when my knees tell me to." She did not say they would have to tear the uniform off her back.

In November 1976 Billie Jean underwent knee surgery for the third time, and since then she has been striving to regain her mobility. And possibly more. Her goal is another Wimbledon title, preferably in singles, which would give her a record 20. After surgery she spent two months in Montreal working out six hours a day—weight-lifting, running, hitting tennis balls by the thousand. With the Apples of World Team Tennis, she would rise early in New York and go to a gym to lift weights, often training side by side with Spencer Haywood of the Knicks.

But progress on the court came slowly, and Evert was often the reason. King reached the finals of the Family Circle Cup, but Evert wiped her out. At Wimbledon she again ran into Evert, this time in the quarters, and again Evert beat her easily. Same thing at Forest Hills. Approaching 34, with three scars on her knees, there was good reason to think Billie Jean would never win again, at least nothing prestigious. But then came the three straight tour victories and the trip to Palm Springs.

The four-day round-robin matches leading to the Evert-King final were held at night in temperatures so cold that those few fans who showed up carrying parkas and blankets looked more a part of a Harvard-Yale football crowd. The lighting at Mission Hills was splendid for the players, but the harsh glare of the freshly painted lines of the court dazzled the linesmen into a rash of frightful calls.

One such call almost put Evert out of the tournament. It did cost her the first set in her opening match against Fromholtz. The two reached 6-6 in games, then 4-4 in the nine-point tie break. Set point both ways. After a rally, Fromholtz hit the ball several inches beyond the baseline, giving the set to Evert. Or did it? All eyes were riveted on the linesman, who tentatively turned palms down, signaling the ball in. There were whistles and shouts. Chris looked pained but said nothing. "I've always felt a champion shouldn't let things like that bother her," she said later.

So it was first set to Fromholtz and, not long after, the second set and match, too. She may have received a lifesaving call, but the left-handed Australian, one of only three players to beat Evert this year, played superbly. Evert looked wooden, moving awkwardly, especially when brought forward. She has been suffering from shin splints lately and had played only one tournament—winning in Atlanta—in the last seven weeks.

After losing to Fromholtz, Chris denied that her legs were hurting, saying that she simply wasn't tournament tough. In any case, she thought she was out of the event, not understanding the format.

But because it was a round-robin, Evert still had a chance, although she had to beat Wade and Navratilova to survive and then hope that they in turn would both beat Fromholtz. If Dianne won either match, her 2-1 record would put her into the final instead of Chris, whom she had beaten.

Evert had no trouble with Martina, moving much better than she had the night before, but her match with Wade was a death struggle. The two are not the best of friends, and Virginia's victory over Chris at Wimbledon has fueled the rivalry. Wade came into the match 1-0, having beaten Navratilova, so that defeating Evert would virtually assure her of reaching the final, Fromholtz having lost to Martina.

Bad calls and, worse, perplexing decisions following bad calls, abounded in the Evert-Wade match. Down 1-2 in the first set and game point against her, Evert hit a crosscourt forehand close to the sideline. Wade returned it and both players hit two more shots before Wade hit long. But even as the umpire cried deuce, Wade turned on the linesman and complained that Evert's crosscourt shot had been out. Remarkably, the linesman decided that perhaps he hadn't seen it after all and yielded to the linesman at the far end of the court who said the ball had been out. Game Wade. She led 3-1. Evert, showing genuine anger on the court for one of the few times in her life, dropped three straight games and the set.

But that was it. She won the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 amid more suspicious calls that had Wade screaming to the desert sky. Her disappointment over losing turned to outrage when she learned that she now was eliminated from the final, and she entered the press tent quivering. "I can't believe it," she said, on the brink of tears. "The format was not properly explained. How can one loss put me out? Chris has one loss. What about comparative set scores. I could wind up with five winning sets to her four." And then she bolted from the room.

Evert entered. "I think I handled the close calls better than Virginia," she said, an understatement. Someone asked her whom she wanted to win the next evening, Wade or Fromholtz. Chris looked puzzled. She still didn't understand the format. When it was explained that she needed a Wade win to make the finals, she nodded and smiled. "Well, now I know who I'm rooting for."

If Chris did root, it was in absentia. She was in her suite at the Racquet Club when she was told Wade had beaten Fromholtz in straight sets.

In the other half of the draw there were no such problems, King marching through the field with a minimum of trouble and a maximum of flair, doing stretching exercises, berating herself, as always, on bad shots and giving linesmen a working over. "You're out to lunch," she screamed at one, her voice booming throughout the arena. "I can't believe you," she yelled at another. And yet she played marvelously, beating Turnbull, Reid and Stove while losing only one set. That left only one more opponent between her and the $75,000 first prize.

Well, maybe next year. Tell Chris she's looking tired, Billie Jean. Oughta take a little vacation. She'll go for it. After all, nobody argues with a legend.

PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEEvert got $100,000 for leading the way to Palm Springs and $75,000 for stopping King 6-2, 6-2. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEA rigorous training regimen has enabled King to return from a knee operation.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)