Billie Jean King was leaving the court at Wimbledon last week when someone approached her and asked, "Please, Miss Smith, may I have your autograph?" Responded Billie Jean: " Miss Smith? I'm not Smith, I'm King." A few days later Billie Jean proved that she is not only a King but a queen, beating those two former monarchs of ladies' tennis, Margaret Smith and Maria Bueno, in succession to become Wimbledon champion.
The autograph-seeker must have been just in from the country, because the pert, bespectacled Billie Jean has been a familiar face around Wimbledon ever since 1962 when, as Billie Jean Moffitt—or "Jillie Bean"—she gained instant fame by upsetting the top-seeded Miss Smith in the first round. A year later she made it all the way to the finals, where Miss Smith got her revenge. Since then Billie Jean has been, more or less, the leading woman player in the U.S.—ranked at or near the top, a valued member of the Wightman and Federation cup teams—a bouncy little girl who lacks Margaret Smith's power and Maria Bueno's grace but is second to no one as a scrambler and a fighter.
At Wimbledon this year prospects for a Billie Jean victory seemed reasonably good, not only because Wimbledon tends to bring out the best in her but also because both Miss Smith and Miss Bueno, who between them had won five Wimbledon singles titles, were both recovering from injuries. Margaret had hurt her wrist earlier in the year and missed the Federation Cup matches (the female counterpart of the Davis Cup). Maria was having trouble with the cartilage of her left knee.
But at Wimbledon, Miss Smith and Miss Bueno went galloping through early opponents without any signs of ailments or rustiness, winning sets by scores of 6-0 and 6-2 and only occasionally 6-4. Billie Jean, on the other hand, had trouble from the start. Playing a teen-ager named Winnie Shaw in the first round, she won the first set handily but found herself behind 2-5 in the second. Bracing, Mrs. King won 8-6. In the fourth round, against Kathy Krantzcke, a large girl from Australia, she was behind 2-5 in the first set and in fact had a set point against her. Again she steadied to win 9-7, 6-2.
But Billie Jean's worst moment of the tournament came in the quarter-finals, against Annette Van Zyl of South Africa. She lost the first set 1-6 but won the second 6-2 and seemed to be on her way. Not quite. Miss Van Zyl took a 3-0 lead in the deciding set before Billie Jean, switching from an attacking to a lobbing game, caught up and won the set 6-4.
Curiously, she had comparatively little trouble against the two former champions. She tossed off Margaret Smith 6-3, 6-3—"Simple," she said. "Just chip the ball back at her feet"—then beat Maria Bueno 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, looking much the better player, even in her losing set. With that, the 22-year-old Mrs. King stepped forward to receive her trophy and be recognized—presumably by everyone, including the autograph-seeker.
During the early part of the tournament it seemed that there could be only one winner in the men's division—Roy Emerson, Wimbledon champion in 1964 and 1965. During the past year Emerson had played spottily, losing to people he had barely heard of. But at Wimbledon his game was again at its peak, and during the opening rounds he toyed with his opponents. Then came the accident that made it anybody's tournament.
Emerson was playing a fellow Australian, Owen Davidson, in the quarterfinals and was handling him with the cool efficiency usually displayed by bank clerks counting bills. The first set passed, flick! flick! flick! 6-1. Then early in the second set Emerson dashed in for a drop volley and slipped on the wet grass, skidded 15 feet, crashed into the umpire's chair and brought the microphone down on himself.
When Emerson arose he continued playing, but there was, said Davidson, "a look of pain on his face." For the rest of the match Emerson was unable to throw the ball up properly for his service. Strained ligaments were diagnosed in his shoulder, and Davidson, the most self-effacing of players, won a victory that he would rightly take no credit for.
Emerson's unfortunate injury gave everyone a chance. Spain's Manuel Santana looked like the new favorite, but there were also Cliff Drysdale of South Africa, who lost to Santana in the finals at Forest Hills last year, and young Tony Roche of Australia, whose injured ankle was getting stronger with every match. Lastly, there was Dennis Ralston, winner of no major tournaments, semifinalist at Wimbledon and Forest Hills last year, perennial close-but-not-quite. And yet, and yet....