Billie Jean king doesn't have a life, she has episodes. At 47 she is still a simmering little mass of brunette, all horn-rims and broad gestures and bawling voice, searching out her next true calling or her next topic for public lecture. When asked to list her profession, she doesn't know what to put down. Bold adventurer? Talented observer? Influential person? Finally, she shrugs and writes, "Self-employed."
She is as daunting and revelatory as the headlights of an oncoming car. Her eyes suggest burning glass, her mind a nuclear reaction. "I have my own order," she says. "I see the big picture first and go backwards to execute it." What she would really like to put down as her life's work is "pioneer." That is probably most accurate. "I'm proud of that," she says. "I've come to see the value of it."
She is the most formidable and versatile female sports figure of her generation, tirelessly whirling through careers. But for all the things King was, is and might yet be, her real talent is perhaps in something much more ordinary—and traditionally underpaid. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she says.
To call King a coach is too simplistic. She is selective about her pupils. She chooses them as much as they choose her. "I'll only work with the smart ones," she says.
Her protègèe for the last two years has been 34-year-old Martina Navratilova, perhaps the greatest woman player who ever lived. This year King has also taken on 30-year-old Tim Mayotte, a onetime Top 10 player who has tumbled in the rankings to No. 90. While most other former champions dabble in broadcasting and lounge at the fringes of the game, King is working as hard as ever at its center.
She does more for Navratilova and Mayotte than analyze their strokes and formulate strategy—although she certainly does that, usually beginning her day at 6 a.m. by watching videotapes while riding her stationary bicycle. She has an academician's love of theory, an innovator's urge to experiment and a psychologist's desire to shore up human frailties. She is a little bit her pupils' mother, a consoling voice on the phone in the first hours after a loss. "She knows what I'm thinking," Navratilova says. "I ask her, 'How can you know that?' " And she is a bit of a gym teacher with a stopwatch, reminding the players that their days are numbered and they have to pick up their feet.
"You've got about five minutes left, each of you," she tells them. "So you better enjoy every second."
The Beauts, King calls Navratilova and Mayotte. She might also call them her hobbies. King works with the two players on what she calls a "full-time part-time" basis, as a remarkable supplement to Navratilova's full-time coach, Craig Kardon, and Mayotte's hitting coaches, Chris Pucci and Jeff Arons. For $1,000 a day from each player, King will spend about 75 days with one or both of them this year. "My bonus is when they hold up trophies," she says.
For two weeks earlier this year, Navratilova and Mayotte submitted to King's ministrations at the Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago, working four hours a day in preparation for the new season. They're planning another joint session in May on grass at Hilton Head, S.C., to work toward the players' common goal: winning Wimbledon.
It has become a collaborative effort, this lively class of two in King's private academy for the gifted and aging. Navratilova welcomed Mayotte's company and the training-camp atmosphere. "It takes the heat off," she says. "I'm not the only one doing something wrong."
The two players present vastly different challenges and temperaments to King. Coaching Navratilova in the physical elements of tennis is a little like telling Carl Lewis how to sprint. Mayotte is something else entirely. A talented yet limited serve-and-volley player, Mayotte moved in and out of the Top 10 for four years, reaching his career high of No. 7 in 1988.
Two years ago, Navratilova was a burned-out champion. However, since she began working with King in May 1989, she has acquired a new self-possession and a new grasp of her game, not to mention a record ninth Wimbledon singles title, which she won last summer. Now, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees in November, she seeks to move up in the rankings from her current No. 4 spot.
Mayotte is a five-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist but has reached the semis just once, in 1982. He has never made the final of a Grand Slam event. He went to King last year with a deteriorating serve. Jimmy Connors is thought to have been the only other high-ranking U.S. male pro to have had a woman coach. "I don't think it's that big a deal," says Mayotte. "It's just Billie continuing to break barriers."
King lives in a sparsely furnished apartment in a glassy Chicago high-rise and in a similar apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, with a lot of suitcases and psychology books. There is no sign in either place of her 24-year playing career, during which she was ranked No. 1 five times. She's not sure where some of her trophies are, and she doesn't seem to care. "They're around," she says. "That's not what I'm into. I remember what I did."
The few photos on her walls are of friends—laughs, not past glories. She is too occupied with her announcing duties for HBO, coaching Navratilova and Mayotte, speaking engagements, a fancy to get into television and film production, a new chain of play schools called the Discovery Zone that promote and study exercise for children under 12, and her longest-standing project, Team Tennis, which represents her most fervid interest: to take the sport out of elite clubs and bring it to the masses. "It's a lonely life in some ways," King says. "Sometimes I think it would be nice if my ideas were accepted all the time."
King's ideas receive varying degrees of acceptance, because they tend to be a few years ahead of their time. "Try 10 or 20," she says, laughing. A fireman's daughter from Long Beach, Calif., she was a significant force in opening tennis to professionalism in the late 1960s. She carried a deep sense of injustice from her days as an amateur player, when she was forced to get by on $100 a week as a playground instructor and college student at the same time that she was making the Wimbledon finals. In 1970, King helped invent the women's pro tour. In '73 she invented the players' union, now called the Women's Tennis Association. "You know all that sports psychology stuff?" adds television commentator and former tour player Mary Carillo. "Well, she invented that, too."
All the while King was winning a total of 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed-doubles crowns. Though she led the crusade for bigger prize money in women's tennis, she did not get rich—at least not by the standards of today's players. Considerable sums have come and gone with her changing fortunes and popularity. "Money is opportunity," she says with a shrug. "And security. I've got some. I'd like more. Most of my ideas cost money."
In 1990, LIFE magazine named her one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century." Only three other athletes—Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali—made the list. "And I haven't even started yet," King says over lunch with Navratilova.
Navratilova leans across the table. "Billie, I have news for you," she says. "You have already started. Trust me. You've started."
At the Mid-Town Tennis Club, Mayotte chases down a series of volleys punched at him by Navratilova and Kardon. "Excellent," King says.
Mayotte curls a backhand horribly wide. "Much worse," says King.
Mayotte continues to send balls over the baseline. "Oh, Timothy Spencer Mayotte, I love you, you're absolutely precious," King says. "You're falling on your face."
King will correct anything; it does not matter how large or small. Your shoestrings. Whole philosophies. "If she didn't have a platform, she'd wither," said the late Ted Tinling, the clothing designer and unofficial historian of the women's game.
The impulse to correct has been in King, as best as she can remember, since she was 11 and was known as Billie Jean Moffitt. Clyde Walker, her teacher at the Houghton Park public courts in Long Beach, thought teaching would help her game, so one afternoon she gave her first lesson to a group of younger children. When she was 12, she sat on the veranda at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, the mecca of U.S. tennis at the time, and mused on the sport's elitism. "I thought, tennis has got to change," she says. "I swore if I ever got to Number One, I'd help do it."
It takes a measure of courage to work with King. She mingles warmth and indefatigable enthusiasm with brusque-ness and toxic sarcasm. "She can make you feel real stupid," Navratilova says. King coaches with her voice, her eyes, her hands, her feet—just about everything, including her racket, which she seldom employs to hit a ball. Instead, she cradles it in her arms or waves it like a pointer. But what's most noticeable about her method of teaching are the constant noise and laughter. "She can be maddening, and disconcerting, but she always makes it fun," Mayotte says.
She claps in time with her pupils' footwork drills. She pursues the two players with her alternately encouraging and hectoring voice. "They'll wear out before it does," she says. According to Kardon, the day King stops her flaying chatter, Navratilova and Mayotte will pack their rackets and go home. "If she ever stopped, that would mean, You don't have a chance," Kardon says.
Some of King's precepts come from teaching pros, some are a little bit Zen, and a lot of them she makes up as she goes along. But everything begins with her insistence on technical competence. Much of what she has done with Navratilova and is attempting to do with Mayotte is aimed at remedying their shocking lack of knowledge about their own games. The intense, literal-minded Mayotte and the brainy, complex Navratilova enjoyed years of success simply by overpowering opponents; they never had to understand what they were doing or why. That made them good frontrunners, but they were slow to recognize their weaknesses, and under pressure they were vulnerable to self-doubt. "Your confidence drops when your technique is weak," King says. "Your technique breaks down and your brain follows suit."
King teaches by questioning. She forces her two pupils to understand their games so that they can correct mistakes on the court. She told Navratilova over dinner when they began working together, "This is the last time you get to correct anything at the table. Losers correct afterward. Champions do it on the court."
Mayotte and Navratilova acquiesce meekly as King grills them on the ailing parts of their games. "What were you thinking when you hit that?" she asks. Mayotte never realized how predictable his game had become, never even realized he had lost his down-the-line backhand volley. Because of a flaw in his stroke, he cupped the ball, sending it back at an angle. "Now he's got that shot back," King says.
Her first chores with Navratilova were to improve her footwork and to strengthen her volley, which had become timid and shallow. Some of the things King looks for are longtime tendencies, such as Navratilova's childhood habit of swinging at her forehand volley and hitting everything from the baseline crosscourt. "Oh my God," King says, clapping a hand to her head as Navratilova rallies. "Two straight down-the-line forehands. What's the date?"
King stresses the three R's: rehearsal, ritual and (endless) repetition. For every shot she creates an important scenario. "O.K., match point, Wimbledon, there's the Royal Box," she calls out, pointing to a vent on the wall. Every mistake requires an explanation from the offender.
Navratilova has shoveled an easy forehand into the net and skulked over to a corner, thinking she won't have to account for it, when King's voice seizes her by the neck. "Hold it," says King. "What happened? Tell me. Show me—now!"
"I was busy admiring my [service] return," Navratilova says.
After another careless error, King strides onto the court waving her arms and says, "Hold it. O.K., she's not getting it. Back to baby stuff." She draws Mayotte, Kardon and Navratilova to the service line, where they dink forehands back and forth until Navratilova irons out her stroke.
Later a Mayotte shot strikes the tape. King whirls. "What's the deal on the low backhand volley?" she says. In a few moments another backhand volley smacks the net. "I simply cannot stand to watch you hit that," King says.
She turns to the rest of the class and asks if anyone can tell her what Mayotte, the new student, is doing wrong. Navratilova, the valedictorian, suggests he is leading with his body instead of his racket, and King nods that she is correct. A few minutes and several staccato Navratilova volleys later, King halts play and turns to Mayotte. "See that?" says King. "She learned well. She knows if she's out of position, I'll kill her. Dead meat."
King's inquisitive nature makes her unafraid to experiment. She is revamping the serves of both Mayotte and Navratilova. That entails returning two of the game's most powerful servers to comically simple exercises. Every afternoon in Chicago they stand at the baseline, wrists cocked, and puff serves into the box. "Toilet training," Mayotte says as Navratilova, Kardon and King collapse in laughter.
King's goal is to make Navratilova's and Mayotte's serves more consistent and 10 to 15 mph faster. To get Navratilova to transfer her power into her arm at the right moment, turning the arm into a whip, King has changed the way Navratilova raises her racket, turns her torso and swings at the ball. Now she swings with her elbow leading, the way a pitcher or quarterback throws. "I want them both to rotate up and into the ball," King says.
"So we're back in school," Navratilova says. "We're willing to do it because we know it will work."
It is too soon for a prognosis on Mayotte, who continues to suffer the early-round losses that plagued him last year. But after working with King in Chicago, he at least has demonstrated a new crispness, according to Jeff Arons. Navratilova is not easy to assess, either. She squealed with the pleasure of a small child when she discovered that she could bend her new knees for a low ball without groaning, but now she must cope in tournaments with the steady encroachment of larger, faster children. Just recently Navratilova was overtaken in the rankings by 20-year-old Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, who moved up to No. 3 in the world.
King is interested in results, but what interests her the most is "the process." Navratilova and Mayotte may not come to understand everything about themselves and their games, but they'll understand "more than they used to," she says. Sometimes King will talk for 45 minutes without a ball being struck. "It can be pretty intellectual stuff," Navratilova says. "Your body is fine; it's your brain that's on fire."
At times King can sound more confusing than enlightening. "Practice equals spontaneity," King tells Mayotte, meaning that if you rehearse something enough, you can perform it more freely. She love; buzzwords. "They're that tools that help players visualize what they have to do," says King.
Some of her phrase; sound like silly pop psych "Martina prefers thinking 'Play in the now,' and Tim prefers 'Play in the present,' " she says. Other phrases are intriguing "Marry the ball" (stay) with the ball at all costs) "Hit with purpose" (have a shot in mind and execute it); "Even if you don't mean it, act it."
Says King, "You have to stay in the moment. I always knew when I was going to play a great match because I woke up in the morning feeling everything. I was so alert. I could feel the water in my hair in the shower. I would pick up my tennis racket thinking of nothing but picking up my racket."
Strategically, King provides startlingly clear direction. Her overall philosophy for these players is simple: When in doubt, attack. "Any time there is the slightest choice, you should be at the net hitting a volley," she says. That simplicity is invaluable to a couple of bright people who can lapse into mental mopes. Mayotte's and Navratilova's style of play requires that they never hesitate, yet they do. Mayotte is afraid to miss. Mentally, Navratilova falls back on the defensive, allowing opponents to impress their games on her. King rails at them to hit out, even if they're on the defensive. "Tennis is the ultimate in violent activity played against a tranquil backdrop," she likes to say.
She has brought a similar sense of perspective to other players. In the case of Jennifer Capriati, now 15, with whom King worked briefly two years ago in the U.S. Tennis Association's player-development program, King asked a single clarifying question: "Why are you playing tennis?"
"Because it's fun," Capriati replied instantly. "That was the right answer," says King. The wrong one would have been because her parents wanted her to, or for the money. Next, King told Capriati to take out pencil and paper, and then proceeded to give her a lesson in the ruthless geometry of tennis.
Sometimes what King provides is an overall plan, the comforting sense of an objective. Navratilova and Mayotte are her first official adult world-class pupils, but Carillo was a more typical recipient of King's everyday impromptu coaching. They met when Carillo was a 19-year-old fledgling pro from Douglaston, N.Y. They were frequent practice partners until Carillo's third knee injury forced her to retire at age 23. After undergoing surgery following the second of those injuries, Carillo was laid up in the orthopedic ward of a New York hospital when King burst through the doors and, in Carillo's words, "demanded that I restore my health at once." King then turned to a small boy whose legs were clamped in a frightening set of braces. She regarded them briefly and said, "So, they're getting your feet organized for you, huh?" The boy thought for a moment and, pleased, said, "Yes."
There remains a holistic cast to King's thinking, a conviction that with a little organization and energy, any ill can be cured. At first she kept journals on her players, notations jotted down in old-fashioned pasteboard notebooks. She requires that Navratilova and Mayotte keep diaries. Originally, they were places where the two players jotted down reminders of tactics and keys to their swings, but the diaries evolved into extremely personal documents that Navratilova and Mayotte both refer to in hushed tones as "my book."
King gave them leatherbound, gilt-edged volumes, in which they write with expensive fountain pens. She insists that each day they record their ambitions—in the past tense. "So it becomes a self-fufilling prophecy," she says. Every morning and afternoon they dutifully write, "I won Wimbledon in 1991." As Navratilova says cheerfully, "Hey, it worked last year."
They also put down fears, insecurities and observations to which not even King or Mayotte's companion, Cathy Barnett, are privy. "It's about emotional confrontation," King says. Navratilova crouches protectively over her book when she writes in it. Only Kardon, a close friend with eyes that invite confidences, is allowed to see her entries. But he doesn't get to read as much as he may think. She writes her most private observations elsewhere.
All of this is in keeping with King's conviction that tennis is not merely a game but a blueprint for constructive living. In her symbiotic, ordered view of the world, tennis is about fortitude-facing up to things—and the value of a good effort for its own sake. To her mind, the sport should be properly executed, pleasing to the eye and emotionally and intellectually gratifying.
"It's about learning your craft," she says. "That's a wonderful thing—especially with today's consumerism and instant gratification. You can't buy that. It's about making decisions, corrections, choices. I don't think it's so much about becoming a tennis player. It's about becoming a person."
Even if it's not, chances are that King, with her confidence and charisma, will convince you that it is. "I was mesmerized by her at 17, and I still am today," says Navratilova. She and Mayotte watch and listen raptly as King's hands carve expressive trails through the air, describing arcs and paths to open places in the court that hadn't occurred to them. King clearly loves the art of tennis. "It's my passion," she says.
She cannot stand to see tennis played badly or, worse, joylessly. "You have to see this to understand how she made me love the game again," Navratilova says.
Mayotte and King stand in a corner talking. "How do you get away from the idea," he says intently, "that when you lose a match it's because you're a bad person?"
King sighs and drops her chin to her chest. "You're killing me today, you know that?" she says. "You're really killing me."
She sighs again. "Look," she says, "you're a great person."
Mayotte says later, "She's always very clear on that."
In March 1990, King was walking through the lunch tent at the Lipton International Players Championship in Key Biscayne, Fla., when Mayotte's vaguely familiar form stepped into her path. He had a crease in his forehead, a "funny look," King recalls.
"I think I want you to coach me," he said.
"I only work with people I like," replied King. "I don't really know you. So first of all I'd have to get to know you."
"O.K.," Mayotte said.
"And I'll never help you," King continued, "unless you'd be willing to completely change your serve."
They moved the conversation to a nearby table. It was the first of many talks that would extend through the summer before King agreed to take on Mayotte. King's curt assessment of his game and her pointed questions did not offend Mayotte, they relieved him. They also confused him.
"What's your point of contact on your backhand?" King asked. "What are you thinking on the toss for your second serve?"
Said Mayotte later, "I didn't have the answer to any of those questions. I'm saying, Hey, I just hit the ball."
Mayotte had been seeking a new coach for two years. A native of Springfield, Mass., he had spent five years under Bill Drake of Boston when he suddenly confronted the fact that he was approaching 30 and had never moved beyond a certain level. Mayotte talked to a series of coaches and listened to their conflicting advice with mounting frustration. "So many people I spoke to were so vague," he says. " 'Get to the net more. Serve bigger.' And I'm saying, 'How do I do that?' Billie Jean takes the mystery out of it for me. She takes the theory and gets it done in reality. She says, 'Well, that's just great, but if you can't get it done on the court, it's all bull——.' "
That their partnership was greeted with skepticism by the press and the tennis world amused both King and Mayotte. Soviet men such as Andrei Chesnokov and Alexander Volkov have been coached by a woman. Volkov saw King at a recent tournament. "I have woman coach, too," he said proudly.
"Look, I don't think gender should enter into it," says King. "But if you're going to argue, why shouldn't women make good coaches? We were brought up to listen, to nurture, to observe."
King congratulates Mayotte for his discernment and for no small amount of guts, but not for choosing her. Rather, she praises him for his willingness to change his game at this late stage. "He's 30 years old now. It's not like he's got nothing to lose," she says.
Mayotte credits King with two immediate improvements: in his large, tattered, fault-prone serve and in his attitude. "I'm too serious," he says. King badgers him to let go. She has told him she does not care if he misses, as long as he swings aggressively. "He needs more random," she says. "He thinks everything—life—is supposed to be all perfect."
She sings him a refrain from the song Release Me. She tries to loosen his stiff, self-conscious service motion by making him catch balls almost as fast as she can pitch them and then whirl and serve them unthinkingly. "She's so smart and so tough, yet so soft and so encouraging and so theoretical and so practical," Mayotte says. "Billie knows how to break down the elements. She knows there's a core process to getting anything done, and she applies it over and over again. She makes you believe."
One afternoon at the Mid-Town Club, a perfectly executed serve and a twisting volley incite Mayotte into an Elvis-like swing of his fist and a slow grind, to whoops from King, Kardon and Navratilova. "Project," King urges him. "Be the artiste. Be mean. Strut."
Then, the next morning, the player nicknamed Gentleman Tim slams his racket on the court without apology and with a gratifying crack, turning its elegant frame into something that looks like a car wreck. "Yes!" King exults. "He did it. Finally."
King saunters over and hands Mayotte a five-dollar bill.
Navratilova sits on a bench, staring contemplatively at nothing. King looks at her for a moment before walking over and taking. Navratilova's face in her hands. She shakes Navratilova's head from side to side. "We don't want this," King says. "We don't want 'No.' "
She nods Navratilova's head up and down. "We want this," she says. "We want 'Yes."
In September 1975, in the middle of the U.S. Open, a teenager with an 11-letter surname told four people—her business manager and three fellow players—of her plan to defect from Czechoslovakia the following day. King did not sleep well with the knowledge of what Navratilova intended to do. Nor did Rosie Casals or Chris Evert.
That is just a small part of what King shares with her protègèe and onetime rival. At a tournament in Detroit in 1974, one year after they first met, King paused to watch Navratilova practice and, uninvited, began correcting her forehand volley. As King's Wimbledon doubles partner in 1979, Navratilova helped her to a record 20th All England title. On the last point of their come-from-behind three-set victory over Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull in the finals, Navratilova let out a shriek more joyous than the one she had emitted in winning the singles the day before. King is now urging Navratilova, who has 17 Wimbledon titles, to break the record. "Which I find unbelievable," Navratilova says.
They were brought together again as a team by Kardon, who was at his wits' end with Navratilova. She had suffered several losses to lesser players, she had not won a Grand Slam championship in nearly two years, and teenager Steffi Graf had long since seized her No. 1 ranking. Navratilova was not listening to Kardon, a mild-mannered 29-year-old former player for the University of Texas with whom she had worked for several months. She was toying with retiring. Finally, Kardon called King, suspecting that she was the one person who could talk forthrightly to Navratilova.
"Why are you playing?" King asked her. "Why are you still here? What do you want?"
"I don't know," Navratilova said.
"Go away for a while," King said.
When Navratilova returned from a week's vacation, she and King set to work on a new ambition: Navratilova had decided she desperately wanted that ninth Wimbledon singles crown to break her tie with Helen Wills Moody. Navratilova asked King, who had reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1983 at age 39, to become part of her camp, and they went with Kardon to Hilton Head to begin preparing for the '89 tournament at the All England Club.
King warned Navratilova that she probably was a year from being ready to win Wimbledon again. King also told Kardon, "You've got to be willing to be fired every day. You can't be afraid to lose [the job]."
Kardon subdued his qualms about being supplanted as Navratilova's coach and quietly watched King go to work. "It was a little weird at first, because I wondered what I had been doing wrong," he says. "But Billie reinforced me. I've gotten a priceless education."
King began by giving Navratilova some painful lessons in reality. First, King and Kardon stood on one side of the net and Navratilova on the other. "Here," King said, handing her a ball. "You teach us." Nonplussed, Navratilova backed away. "What do you mean?" she said. "You're supposed to teach me."
King told Navratilova to explain all of her strokes, one by one. "I need to find out what you know and don't know," said King.
"But I don't know where to start," Navratilova said, giggling in panic.
"Why don't you start with which end of the racket you hold?" King said.
At the end of the day, Kardon looked at Navratilova, looked at King, smiled broadly and said: "Enlightenment."
King next set out to correct Navratilova's body language. Her pained on-court demeanor was aiding opponents, tipping them off when she was fearful. King forbade Navratilova to glance at friends in the stands for reassurance, as she had done throughout her career. Later, King would change seats during matches until she finally broke Navratilova of the habit. She instituted fines to curb Navratilova's more offensive behavior: the pouting, moaning and racket-throwing that had been driving Kardon crazy in practice.
"Basically I was a spoiled brat," Navratilova says. "I'd whine about the wind or say, 'What a cheap shot.' Feeling sorry for myself. And I thought I was doing great. I had no idea how far I had to go."
Late one afternoon in Hilton Head, King decided to give Navratilova the full truth. "Watch," King told Kardon. "She'll cry."
As Navratilova sat on a bench, sullen but satisfied after wiping out a local player, King asked her to grade herself on a scale of one to 10. Navratilova gave herself a seven. "I give you a minus three," King said.
Navratilova's eyes widened. But King had barely begun. "You aren't going to win Wimbledon this year," she said. "Or any year. I don't think you'll ever win it again. Certainly not with your attitude."
Then, just as King had predicted, Navratilova burst into tears. "It was a horrible day," King says. "If I hadn't known how often she cries, I probably would have folded up like a napkin."
That was the beginning of what King now calls a year of "huge emotional confrontation" for Navratilova. She did not win Wimbledon in 1989, losing to Graf in the final. She lost to Graf again later that summer in the U.S. Open final after leading 6-3, 4-3. All she had to do to win the match was hold serve twice, but she couldn't. She double-faulted twice in one game, and Graf went on to a three-set victory. King forced Navratilova to watch replays of the match as Navratilova writhed in her chair.
The chief thing King had told her throughout that first spring and summer was that if she hoped to win another Wimbledon, she would have to "get a lot tougher emotionally." King knows why Navratilova cries easily and can recover five minutes later. "It's a release for her," she says. She knows that Navratilova is led by her moods, that she acts and then thinks and that she has a puzzling and sometimes killing self-doubt. King knows all of the physical and psychological quirks of this player who has been on a strict regimen for so long that she swears two glasses of whole milk can make her feel drunk. "I've gone through lots of denial," says Navratilova. "I'll say, 'I'm fine, I'm not nervous,' and she'll say, 'It's O.K., it's natural to be nervous.' All my life I've been denying I got nervous when I played, because that meant I was weak. Billie showed me it wasn't weakness."
By last summer Navratilova had achieved better emotional balance. When Zina Garrison upset Graf in the Wimbledon semifinals, the final looked to be a cinch for Navratilova. With two days to think about the Saturday match, she seized up and went sleepless. On Friday night, however, Navratilova quieted her nerves, studied her game plan and slept soundly. The next morning Evert, her old rival, wandered into the locker room, and they chatted. Evert, who was doing commentary for NBC, had a handful of cue cards with her. Navratilova asked to read them. On one, Evert had written that Navratilova's weakness was a tendency to get tight in close matches. Navratilova simply nodded in agreement. She then quelled a last, bone-rattling case of the shakes as she went on court, and she defeated Garrison 6-4, 6-1.
Afterward, she climbed into the Centre Court stands and threw herself into the arms of King and Kardon. King now says, "She's done. A year ago she couldn't have coached. Now she can. She learned her craft."
Nonetheless, Navratilova began their training sessions in Chicago playing tentatively on her repaired knees. "No matter how easy it was, it's still an operation, and it makes you nervous," she says of the arthroscopic procedure.
King knows. She had five knee operations. "You wonder if you'll play again," she says. Two things have put Navratilova's mind more at ease: the pleasure of playing without pain for the first time in 3½ years, and the reassurance King gives her. "Billie had her best years after knee operations," says Carillo. "They made her hungrier. I always wondered if she had them intentionally."
In 1968, a doctor sliced open King's right knee and told her it had only two years to live. King played for 15 more. "Two years, right?" she says. "I was finally about to see open tennis. There was this whole new awakening in my sport, and some guy gives me two bloody years. Uh-uh, I said, wait a minute."
King swears her ambition is to be fired. "I don't want to be needed," she says. But Mayotte and Navratilova need her. Being around King is like standing next to a warm motor. She gives off an electric hum of knowledge. "I'm still learning," Navratilova says. "I haven't tapped her dry yet. I may never."
That is because King continues to learn at an alarming rate. She talks endlessly to club pros about teaching techniques. "She fiddles," says Mayotte. King talks wistfully of new medical procedures that would have saved her the knee operations and of new insights into the sport that might have won her more matches. "Oh, God, if I'd had proper footwork I could have been dangerous," she says. She regards players today with a mixture of pride and despair—for the money, privileges and information they have and she didn't. "I'm envious," she says. "But not jealous. The way it is now is the way I wanted it."
The patience to coach and a capacity to enjoy the success of others are uncommon qualities in a past champion. As Navratilova says, "I think my winning Wimbledon was absolutely as close as she could come to winning it again herself."
For a time, though, King did not have such an embracing view of the game. At the height of her athletic and political power in the early to mid-'70s, her convictions could seem intractable. The same drive that made her an able leader sometimes made her overbearing. Righteous anger can be off-putting. So can relentless optimism. So can tantrum-throwing. "People thought I was angry," King says. "I wasn't. I was determined."
Crowds turned against her and she became disillusioned. No sooner had she recovered her perspective than Marilyn Barnett, her former personal assistant, sued her in 1981 over a house they had shared in Malibu and made public their love affair. (Barnett lost the suit, but King has said the episode cost her and her husband, Larry, millions of dollars in business and personal endorsements.) King retired and unretired as a player. She and Larry were divorced. "I trust her," Mayotte says. "She's seen tough times and turned it all around, made it work for her."
So here is King at 47. She has been the consummate athlete at 135 pounds, and she has weighed 190. She has been called a model champion and a poor sport. She is interested in just about everything. She was once celebrated, occasionally reviled, and now she is venerated. And somehow she has regained that glow-in-the-dark generosity that makes people teach.
"I'm an idealist," King says. "I lost it for a while and then I got it back. I do understand that everything's not all as black-and-white as I thought."
Carillo has viewed King from various perspectives, first as a youngster growing up in the 1960s and '70s—when, if you were a woman tennis player, King's influence was impossible to avoid—then as a fellow player, and now as a 34-year-old wife and mother and a gainfully employed observer of tennis. Carillo's most enduring image of King dates to their playing days. One evening she invited King to the family home in Douglaston for dinner. King stood on the lawn at twilight, watching Carillo's father, Anthony, do his gardening. "Want to see my worms?" he said playfully, turning over several shovelsful of rich brown dirt. King leaned over to look, genuinely absorbed.
What does King want next? Here are just a few things. She wants to produce a mystery film. She wants to open a tennis academy with Kardon. She wants to keep passing her knowledge on to younger players and learning about how to develop and preserve athletic potential in children. She wants to see Navratilova and Mayotte win their Wimbledons with a searing sense of the moment. She wants them to be smarter at 40 than they are now.
"There is so much magic on that stage," says King. "I tell Tim and Martina that this is their stage and these are their moments. They should wake up every morning like they've been shot from a cannon."
"I think great people are great dreamers," says Mayotte. "They have this feeling, this expectation. I had it, just a little. I knew I was going to be a tennis player. But for her, the scheme has been so much grander."
Billie Jean, five years old, ran into her mother's kitchen and made an announcement. "I'm going to do something wonderful," she said.
"Really, dear," Betty Moffitt said. "I wonder what it will be."