Women's tennis," says Clark Graebner, "is awful. I can't stand it. But if those two play each other at Forest Hills I'd walk from Cleveland to New York to watch. They'll be going at each other with sledgehammers."
Graebner, a member of the Davis Cup team, has had to watch a lot of female tennis in the line of devotional duty, since his wife, Carole, is the third-ranking American player. He has not mentioned walking 500 miles to see her play, however. The two whose collision he so keenly anticipates arc Billie Jean Moffitt King of Long Beach, Calif. and Nancy Richey of Farmer's Branch, Texas, who share the No. 1 ranking as uneasily as Liz and Sybil in the days when they both claimed Richard Burton.
As the U.S. championships unfold, 22-year-old Billie Jean and 24-year-old Nancy will move about the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills as though it were the O.K. Corral. They are stalking each other. The girls last met two years ago in this same stadium, when Nancy's quarter-final victory gave her the No. 1 ranking all by herself.
Since then Billie Jean has made more prestigious progress. She won at Wimbledon in July, a triumph that symbolizes world supremacy, and she has been nearly invincible for two seasons on the U.S. grass-court circuit, a tour that Nancy has ducked.
"I want to play her so bad and settle this thing," says Billie Jean.
"Nobody," says Nancy, "wants to settle it more than I do. I think I'm better. I've beaten Billie Jean six out of seven times we've played, you know."
Normally at Forest Hills the women's singles is the undercard, but this year the partisans of Billie Jean and Nancy evoke the atmosphere of the early '30s when the two Helens—Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs—were fighting it out for the championship and first place in the rankings.
Contrary to Clark Graebner's appraisal, the women's matches at Forest Hills often are more interesting than the men's. Limited in strength, the girls seldom play the stereotyped grass-court game played almost without exception by the men: wham-bam...wham-bam...wham-bam—and sometimes bam-wham.
Billie Jean buzzes the net like a torpedo boat approaching for the kill and overpowers most opponents, but she will have to work more thoughtfully against Nancy, who stands at the baseline like an offshore battleship, sending heavily paced salvos crosscourt and along the sidelines.
In winning at Wimbledon, Billie Jean beat two former champions—Margaret Smith and Maria Bueno—in succession. But a world championship in July is not much consolation in September if Billie Jean cannot win the championship of her own country at Forest Hills and free herself of the clinging presence of Nancy Richey.