This year's Wimbledon was conspicuously wet and flat, like stale beer. Indeed, the only heady moments were provided by the reemergence of Billie Jean King, the powerful talents of Martina Navratilova and the courage of Jimmy Connors. These qualities in the latter two have long been recognized, but perhaps never so nicely showcased. Oh yes, one other item to call to your attention:
THE COMMITTEE OF THE ALL ENGLAND LAWN TENNIS AND CROQUET CLUB ANNOUNCE THAT MR. J.P. MCENROE HAS BEEN ELECTED AN HONORARY MEMBER OF THE CLUB.
Alas for Mr. McEnroe, he had at last earned acceptance to the club, even as he lost its championship 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 to Connors, falling in a match that was close enough to satisfy the pit-bull spirit Connors evokes—"It was kill or be killed out there," he said—but, as art, was little more than an extended tragedy of errors. In the end, although they both won the same number of points, 173, Jimbo proved to be more the survivor, so he carried off his first Grand Slam title in four years and his first Wimbledon championship in eight. His was the longest gap between titles except for Bill Tilden's nine years, 1921 to '30.
July 11, 1982
We tend to forget how despised a scoundrel James Scott Connors, Patti's husband, Brett's father, was at Wimbledon before the world had ever heard of McEnroe, and if in some ways Connors remains a golden oldie—his floppy-haired boyishness, the little old round metal racket—he's more mature now. The Ilie Nastase influence has faded, the sophomoric vulgarity is gone. Apart from one vintage crotch grab in the final, Connors was the very model of civility, and it's difficult not to admire all the enthusiasm and honesty he brings to the game. "To go out there and play your guts out and have a rapport with the crowd, that's what it's all about," he said one day last week. And as if to prove it, in the fourth round against Paul McNamee, Jimbo took off on a dead run, diagonally across Court 1, missed scooping up a drop shot, jumped over a changeover chair, still at full tilt, kept going until he popped into the first row, handed his racket to a befuddled woman and bade her take his place on court.
As a stylist, Connors also has grown, coming up with a new serve that carries him forward into position to rush the net. For years, critics said that he had to develop a better serve to take pressure off his enervating baseline game. Indeed, the new Connors serve-and-volley style was evident in his early-round matches. Then on Monday of the second week, he met a qualifier named Drew Gitlin, No. 185 in the world, a bandy-legged, curly-haired little fellow from Encino, Calif. Gitlin carried Connors to four hard, long sets and into the gloaming in a match that was far superior to the final. Gitlin is what the other players call a "puddler," someone who can chip shots just over the net, forcing the bold volleyer to bend low and search for them as if they had plopped into some puddle. After Gitlin gave Connors so much unexpected difficulty, Connors quietly retreated to the baseline for his next three matches, not breaking camp there until he faced McEnroe.
Once the object of every tabloid's rapt attention, Connors was a wispy E.T. in London, materializing for his matches and then fading back to his hotel, where he remained cloistered with his wife, 2-year-old son and brother. The public's focus has shifted almost exclusively to McEnroe, and indeed, his defeat may be quite a blow to the British entertainment industry. First there was a West End revue entitled Not in Front of the Audience, in which an actor made up to look like McEnroe starts screaming from a box, complaining to an actor playing McEnroe's father that he has a bad seat. Meanwhile, an actress portraying McEnroe's mother displays desperate mortification. Then, a popular television program, Not the Nine O'Clock News, carried a skit in which the McEnroe family was portrayed having breakfast. The sketch concluded with John smashing his egg away with his racket. Finally, there appeared a rock record, Chalk Dust—The Umpire Strikes Back, featuring singing by someone identified only as The Brat and dialogue set to music between an unnamed umpire and a player. Selected lyrics:
Player. Everyone can see there was chalk dust.
The ball was in by a mile.
You people here are goddamn senile....
Umpire: Play on. You're being rather naughty. Kindly play on....
Player: I want to see my daddy. There was chalk dust....
Umpire: Boring...I'm sorry about this. You're a tedious little brat. I'm sick of you.
Then the umpire shoots the player.
Of course, as the honorary membership attests, all of this has become passé. Except for drawing some minor reprimands, McEnroe checked his bad behavior at the Lost Luggage tent. For its part, the All England made sincere attempts to be more solicitous toward its athletic minions. As for the courts, a source of great ire in recent Fortnights, they were tended by a new groundsman and were in their finest condition in ages.
None of the above, however, improved the gentlemen's final. When McEnroe won the first set, he appeared to be in control. But he would only break Connors twice more in the match, and on both occasions Connors really gave away his service. Indeed, after the opening set McEnroe had nothing to recommend him except his serve, which often was wonderfully consistent—and as his 19 aces (to Connors' none) showed, devastatingly powerful—even as the rest of his game withered. "This is a joke!" McEnroe hollered at one juncture, displaying an accuracy of thought, if not stroke.
Connors got back into the match by winning the second set, but he squandered a lead in the third and ultimately lost the set in a tiebreaker (7-2). It was surprising that either player won this set. so lackluster was the play during it. One classic game of 12 points featured one winner and 11 errors. When Connors served for the set at 5-4, McEnroe broke him by making only two errors to Connors' four, two of which were double faults. Connors would finish the match with 13 doubles (to McEnroe's 10), an inordinately high number, even for a man with a new serve.
Play did begin to pick up some in the fourth set. Connors sporadically reverted to his pre-Gitlin schemes and played some serve-and-volley. There was no pattern to what he did. Sometimes he would stay back on his first serve, and then he'd bolt in after his second. Whatever, he won a high percentage of points whenever he took the net, and ultimately, over four hours and 14 minutes, Connors, the counterpuncher, attacked better than McEnroe, the charger, received.
The trouble is that, though McEnroe vs. Connors would appear to make the ideal confrontation, their strengths tend to mess up each other's rhythm; they almost never play good matches against each other, let alone pretty ones. In this final, there were only a few sustained moments, most notably the fourth-set tiebreaker, which Connors won 7-5, and parts of the fifth set, when both players finally approached their capabilities.
At 1-1 in the last set, McEnroe had a disastrous service game in which he double-faulted and played two loose volleys before Connors broke with a blistering backhand return down the line. Thereafter Connors stayed ahead with some exceptionally fine serving. Indeed, he never faced a break point. "He won fair and square, and I'm happy for that," McEnroe said afterward. And Connors said, "I like playing John because I know what he's going to give me, and he knows what I'm going to give him." So, McEnroe was a good loser, and Connors was a good winner, even if neither was a terrific player this day. The final shot, anyway, was a winner on the line. Chalk dust.
Navratilova, who defeated Chris Evert Lloyd 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 in the ladies final, was a much bigger winner than Connors. She now has won 54 of 55 matches this year, and she's halfway—with the harder half behind her—to becoming only the third woman to win the Grand Slam. Mo Connolly and Margaret Court did it in 1953 and '70, respectively. Not only that, Navratilova is also three quarters of the way to winning another, newly minted Slam known as the Playtex Challenge. What's that? (Sounds of Ed McMahon guffawing on the couch.) It's the winning of four designated tournaments—U.S. Indoors, Family Circle Cup, Wimbledon and U.S. Open—and it's worth $1 million. For winning the first three, Navratilova received $500,000. That, plus Wimbledon's $67,000 first-place check, gave her nearly $1 million in prize money for 1982, and she's well on her way to winning more money in one year than any athlete in history.
More important was the impressive-ness of her Wimbledon victory. The men's field was depleted: among the no-shows were Ivan Lendl (allergic to grass, he says); the noted non-qualifier, Bjorn Borg; and two Argentines who were loath to play on British soil and, especially, British grass, Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. However, all the best women were enrolled in The Championships. On one thrilling day early in the final week, Evert Lloyd, Andrea Jaeger, Pam Shriver, Wendy Turnbull and Sylvia Hanika were all a set down to lower-ranked players, and of the lot, only Evert Lloyd escaped. By contrast, in the men's semis, the overmatched losers, Tim Mayotte and Mark Edmondson, between them could win only 14 games in six sets of tedium.
Navratilova cemented her claim to preeminence with her triumph over Evert Lloyd. No one knew better than Navratilova the meaning of the victory. And no one laughed louder or more joyously than she, when, after the match, back at her rented house a few blocks from the courts, her friends stormed into her bathroom and poured cold champagne all over her as she lay soaking in the tub.
It was different now. When Martina won her first two Wimbledons, in '78 and '79, her life was unsettled, her spirits frayed. "I reached the top. I got there," she says. "Then I was so disillusioned. I thought it had to be such a big deal, and nothing happened."
Navratilova's emotional safari back to glory was guided by her coach, Renee Richards, and her trainer and housemate, Nancy Lieberman, the basketball star, and her victory was efficient in plan, nearly relentless in execution. Yet nothing with Navratilova is ever certain, and it was a curious final she and Evert Lloyd played, one most resembling the squiggly lines on the chart that reflected the unsettled English weather during the Fortnight. Surely, too, the forecast was all wrong. Navratilova, the archetypal net rusher, dashed through the first set in 22 minutes, but scored often from the back-court, scampering about, nailing winners on the run. Meanwhile, the ever reliable and confident Evert Lloyd sprayed shots hither and yon and hoped only, as she would say later, "not to be humiliated."
But Navratilova has a tendency to start slugging—which plays right into a baseliner's strength—when she gets ahead. Also, never forget that the greatest myth in tennis is that Evert Lloyd's game isn't suited to grass. This was her 17th Grand Slam tournament on the turf. She had reached the finals in 10 and merely made the semis in the seven others. In the second set her shots began to sting, and she began to take the net herself, pressuring Navratilova's weak backhand. On offense, Navratilova started missing her approaches, and after botching a couple of overheads, she began glancing nervously to the stands, toward where Richards—the erstwhile ophthalmologist was furiously scribbling new strategic prescriptions—and Lieberman sat. By the end of the set, the first one she had lost in the tournament, Navratilova was in disarray. She barely eked out her first service game of the final set and was cleanly broken next time to trail 2-1.
Evert Lloyd had the lead for the first time in the match, and she was also buoyed by another thought, which she later delicately phrased this way: "I thought maybe Martina would crack under pressure." Three times in the past year, in major-championship finals, Navratilova had won the first set in crushing fashion, only to fold like a dollar suitcase. Now she looked back up at Richards and Lieberman for support. Lieberman, often so effusive, only smiled. "That did the trick," said Navratilova afterward. She broke Evert Lloyd right back, at 30, and then held for a 3-2 lead.
However, Evert Lloyd stiffened. She cut 40-15 out of sturdy cloth, and it began to look like a taut, drawn-out fight to the finish. Instead, how strange it would be. How very sudden. "On grass, you must work constantly on keeping your feet moving, because the ball comes off erratically," Evert Lloyd had said only a couple of days earlier. Now, when a ball skidded a bit into her forehand, she was caught flat-footed and she rapped the shot limply into the net: 40-30. The next return from Navratilova was surprisingly soft. Evert Lloyd's feet were still rooted. She rushed only the racket, and the ball drifted off it low into the tramlines. Deuce. Navratilova then made two good forcing shots that Evert Lloyd could barely fuss with, and it was 4-2.
Quickly then, there was a last gasp. Evert Lloyd went up 30-15 on Navratilova's serve, but abruptly Martina began to serve and volley as of yore and won three dashing points: 5-2. The jig was up. Another break at love: game, set, match, championship. Navratilova stretched her arms high in exultation seven minutes after Evert Lloyd had led 3-2, 40-15.
"The more you work for something, the more you want it," said Navratilova later. "The arrogant, cocky person people saw was a distorted image, but I put it up myself for defensive reasons. I'm all right now. I don't need traumas to drive me anymore. I'm settled now. And it'll stay all right, because when you know what it's like, you know what to expect. I'll like it better this time. And I'll be better for it, too." She was dressed now, ready to go cut for her victory party, but here was someone still with champagne in her hair.
Before Navratilova and Connors brought this Wimbledon to its proper crescendo, the tournament first had to be rescued from the elements and ennui by an unlikely savior, 38 in years, 33-1 in odds, the one, the only, Billie Jean King. Dismissed as "the Old Lady" many years and knee operations ago, King ultimately converted enough key third-down situations to progress to the semifinals, the most aged female to get that far at Wimbledon in 62 years.
The difficulties that King had to help the tournament overcome were varied and many. The weather, even by London standards, was abysmal. A wildcat Underground strike, followed by a National Railroad strike, isolated Wimbledon out in the suburbs until Wednesday of the second week. Besides, the World Cup was on the telly most every night.
Last year King was at Wimbledon as a television commentator. The publicity over her affair with her former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, had staggered her and left her timid and leery of the public. She spoke of her tennis career strictly in the past tense and speculated on what 1982 might bring.
Then, in December, the suit that Barnett had filed against King and her husband, Larry, over ownership of a beach house came to trial. The judge decided in favor of the Kings, but the victory was hollow for Billie Jean. Her reputation had been damaged, and she had lost perhaps $1.5 million in off-court income. She retreated to a secluded house she and Larry own on Kauai in Hawaii. There she finally found a haven from the maelstrom that had been swirling around her for so long. But the refuge wasn't Kauai itself. The refuge was a tennis court on the island. "That was the one place Billie Jean could escape to," says liana Kloss, her doubles partner.
Soon King risked going back on the tour. It wasn't easy. There were first-and second-round defeats. In Detroit, she fled the court: default. There were occasions when she was petty or picayune—bitchy. "Please understand," she said at Wimbledon. "It's been a very hard year for me. I think I'm all right now, but every day I still hold my breath." Then there was Wimbledon. All along, Wimbledon was the goal: "the Old Lady's house," the grass, the instincts, the memories. Her opening match would make her the first player ever to play 100 singles matches at The Championships. By the Fortnight's end she had appeared in a total of 250 in singles and doubles.
King escaped from triple match point against Tanya Harford in the third round, whipped Turnbull, the sixth seed, in the fourth round, and, in the quarters, came from a set down to beat Tracy Austin, 19, the No. 3 player in the world. King threw junk down the middle at Austin, belted serves into the corners, cut volleys and won the big points en route to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. The next morning, when she lugged her aching bones out of bed after 10 hours' sleep, her picture was on the front pages of The Times, in New York and London alike.
And what delicious irony this was, for there was King on the front page for all the world to see, wearing a "free" dress. After all the bad publicity, King had surely become the only name player in the world without a clothing contract. One major manufacturer did approach her, but with an insulting offer, figuring she would wear the company's outfits for almost nothing. She told the clothier to take a hike and kept on wearing the old dresses that her friend, Ted Tinling, had designed for her sometime ago. At Wimbledon she donned the same dress every day—complete with ruffled panties.
At last, in the semis, King came a cropper against Evert Lloyd 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, but it was a meeting of lovely high quality marred only by—what else?—a storm. This one came, cruelly, ludicrously, at 5-2 40-all in the third set, right after Evert Lloyd had hit a backhand service return wide on her first match point. Forty-one minutes and four match points later, Evert Lloyd closed out King with a lob on the baseline. Afterward, coolly, rationally, King explained how it had all faded: short approaches, a couple of missed overheads, going to the well with drop shots a few times too often.
That evening, though, relaxing in her hotel room with Larry, who had flown over that day to surprise her, she seemed fiery and nettled. "I wasn't honest with the press today," she said. "I didn't tell them how I really felt. I'm dying inside; I should have won. I could have. And that's why I still go on." Anyway, she said, she had learned how, at age 38, to play again. Now she must learn how to win a tournament again.
That was a lesson both Navratilova and Connors would soon show they already had mastered.