When the Virginia Slims traveling carpet and all-girl band got to town last week, Detroit was in the midst of a bad case of the grays. Car sales were down. The weather was lousy. The Pistons were a long shot for the playoffs, and the Red Wings were bumbling along 38 points behind Montreal.
Clearly what Motown needed was diversion, and the Slims show, a unique amalgam of sport and spangles that tours the country's major sports arenas for the first 13 weeks of the year, was just the ticket. The tournament, an annual fund-raising project of the Birmingham, Mich. Junior League—and the only sporting event in America with homemade brownies in the press room—drew the largest crowds in its seven years at Cobo Arena because the field included three of the biggest draws in the women's game. To wit, Evonne Goolagong, pursuing a comeback after the birth of her first child; Billie Jean King, playing singles on the Slims' green rug for the first time in three years; and Virginia Wade, winner of Wimbledon last summer and No. 2 in the world behind Chris Evert, who is sitting out most of the Slims tour this year (see box, page 22).
But it was Martina Navratilova, the gifted and mercurial 21-year-old Czech, who got the headlines in Detroit, just as she has been doing all winter wherever the Slims troupe alighted. With a resounding 6-3, 6-2 victory over Australian Dianne Fromholtz, Martina won a record sixth straight Slims tournament. (The previous record was held jointly by King and Goolagong.) Navratilova has won every tournament she has entered this season. She has won 30 consecutive matches, also a record, and she has lost only six sets in those matches. As her confidence has increased, her game has grown steadier, and she appears to be gathering momentum as she passes the milestones, one by one. For example, her scores in Detroit were 6-1, 6-2; 6-2, 6-3; 6-2, 6-0; 6-4, 6-2; 6-3, 6-2.
Fromholtz, a dainty blonde lefthander, is a strong, aggressive player. She is the one player all year who has given Navratilova a difficult match, a three-set struggle in early January that went to 7-5 in the last set. To reach the Detroit final she beat Renee Richards 6-3, 6-4, Goolagong 6-2, 6-1 and King 6-3, 0-6, 7-6. Fromholtz has a reputation as a giant killer because she once upset Evert in the first round of a Slims tournament, something that had happened to Chris only once before, but the Detroit final was no contest. It was over in exactly 60 minutes and Navratilova never breathed hard.
"Martina looks as if she's unbeatable," says Herb Foster, the promotions man who travels with the tour. "She sizes up how hard she has to play and plays that way. She rolls all over the younger players. The great improvement is her serve. When she gets down she serves well. She is playing much better than she has ever played in her life."
Q: Martina, have you ever played better in your life?
Q: Martina, are you unbeatable right now?
A: I can concentrate just about 100% now. Someone will have to beat me. I will not beat myself.
The surprise is not that Navratilova has lead the circuit in Evert's absence; she was a strong second to Chris on the 1977 Slims tour and has usually played well early in the year. The surprise lies rather in the juggernaut quality of her triumphs. The battle she was expected to have to wage with Goolagong for the top spot has not materialized. Although Goolagong launched her comeback impressively with four straight wins on grass in Australia in the late fall, she ran into trouble when she switched indoors and onto the Sporteze carpet used for Slims events. Her first tournament was in Florida. Martina had taken the week off to see her new hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys, win the Super Bowl, and in her absence Goolagong beat Wendy Turnbull 6-2, 6-3 in the finals. But in the process she badly injured her feet. A blistered heel and a painful instep were the price. "I wanted to cut them off," she said.
Evonne had to withdraw from Los Angeles because of her injuries, and, later, from Seattle because she came down with the flu and had a 103° fever. But between the two tournaments she and Navratilova finally confronted each other in the final at Chicago's International Amphitheatre. Martina won 6-7, 6-2, 6-2, but because Evonne was not yet back in top form it was not the decisive engagement that had been anticipated. Nevertheless, beating Goolagong was an important psychological victory for Martina, who had lost to her in their last five meetings.
Another big psychological stumbling block that Martina overcame was Billie Jean King, the idol of her youth, her companion in practice and her friend and partner in doubles. Circumstances, having mainly to do with Billie Jean's knee operations and convalescences, had prevented the two from playing each other since Martina joined the women's tour in 1974. Finally last fall, when King, as she said, "recycled" herself and won four tournaments, she also met and defeated Navratilova four times.
At Houston, the third Slims tournament of this year, they both reached the final, and there Martina won 1-6, 6-2, 6-2. King said afterward, "You only have so many moments in a match when you know you must make particular points. Martina played her particular moments better than I did. That's why she won."
Before the Detroit semifinals, when it looked as if King, not Fromholtz, might be Martina's opponent in the finals, Navratilova was asked how she felt about Billie Jean. She said, without malice, "I'm getting used to her. I don't feel I'm playing my idol anymore. I feel more on the same level with her."
It is just possible that Martina is not on the same level with anybody anymore. Roy Emerson, Martina's coach on the Boston Lobsters, said a year ago, "If she'll really work harder on her game, she could leave Evert behind."
Still, the more she wins, the more the pressure to keep winning builds. "Winning is a disease," Navratilova said before the final. "Once you win you want to keep winning. If you start losing you can't quit until you win again." Another day she had mused, "I can feel it in the locker room, pressure from people who want to break my string. Even when we play Rummy-O, I feel I should win."
Navratilova's relations with the press have improved almost as much as her tennis. There was a time when she made no attempt to hide her contempt for the inevitable dumb questions of a press conference. She is more tolerant now. Last week it was she who repeatedly reminded reporters that Evert was not around and that they should keep that fact in mind when evaluating her accomplishments. When she was asked if she felt she was No. 1 now, she replied, "I am No. 1 only if Chris is away. It takes a lot more than five tournaments to be No. 1. She'll be back soon, and then we'll see."
When Evert does return, she will find a Martina who is unchanged in that she will still howl in outrage at a bad line call, but who is a new person in that she can also win the next point. The old Martina used to howl and lose the next six points.
"I haven't been making unforced errors. That is the difference," continued she says. "Now when I get mad at myself I get on my case and I settle down. I want to win the next point."
A powerful influence in Martina's settling process has been her friend and business manager, Sandra Haynie, the 1974 Women's Open golf champion, who retired from the LPGA tour a couple of years ago to begin representing professional athletes. Her Pro Sports Management currently handles three women golfers and two tennis players. Haynie is 13 years older and that much wiser than her, star client, and Navratilova listens to her. According to all observers it is Haynie who persuaded Martina to control her emotions on the court. Herb Foster says, "Sandy sits near the court, and when there is a questionable line call Martina will look at her instead of at the umpire or the referee, and Sandy, with a small gesture, says, 'Cool it.' "
An even more pressing question at the beginning of the Slims tour this year than who was going to replace Evert on the court was, at least as far as Philip Morris was concerned, who was going to replace her at the gate. Evert, King, Goolagong, Wade and, lately, Richards, sell tickets, but mostly Evert and King do. The Slims people predicted a 10% drop in attendance without Evert, but after seven tournaments the decrease is only about 5%, and it could as easily be accounted for by bad luck and bad weather as by an absent Chris.
Foster recounts the disasters: "In Florida we had a windstorm that knocked a truck off the freeway. In Houston it was 23° and the radio was saying, 'Don't go out,' the words a promoter most hates to hear. And in Chicago it snowed all week. We had 50,000 in Chicago as it was, but we could have had at least another 12,000 if it hadn't been for the snow." Furthermore, Billie Jean lost in the first round in Washington and retired in the first round in Los Angeles—in each instance it hurt the gate in the remaining rounds.
Fortunately, Philip Morris is still happy with its Virginia Slims promotion, even though there are probably more households in America today where Virginia Slims means women's tennis than where it brings to mind a skinny cigarette. Obviously, women's tennis is healthy if a circuit like the Slims can lose its superstar and suffer only minor repercussions at the box office. So on—to Kansas City, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and Oakland—with the show.