There is nothing like a good old-fashioned feud, real or imagined, to bring out the best in people, athletes included. And last Friday night at New York's Madison Square Garden a good old-fashioned feud—46% real, 39% imagined and 15% no opinion—was revived in the most startling fashion. The occasion was only a semifinal match in the Garden Challenge Trophy tennis tournament, one of a dozen stops on the winterlong combined indoor- Caribbean circuit, but for all that was at stake for the antagonists, it might well have been a Wimbledon and Forest Hills final combined.
On one side of the net was Billie Jean Moffitt King, 24, the myopic pepper pot who is totally and absolutely dedicated to the proposition that Billie Jean Moffitt King is the No. 1 tennis player in the world, which she is. "You have to hate to lose," she has often said. "That's why I'm on top."
Seventy-eight feet away was Nancy Richey, 25, a firm believer in her father George's "Thou Shalt Not Smile on the Court" philosophy.
The matchup was perfect. Mrs. King is an aggressive, hard-hitting net rusher who flails away at everything within reach; Miss Richey is a grim, stubborn baseliner who ventures to the net only by accident. The two girls have been contesting the top ranking in the U.S. for four years. Nancy got it in 1964; Billie Jean in 1966-67. They drew in 1965—both were No. 1 and, as much as anything, that started the feud...er, rivalry in earnest.
All in all, the Garden confrontation would have brought back memories of the famous matches between Helen Hull Jacobs and Helen Wills Moody in the 1930s, except that, before last Friday, King and Richey hadn't been on the same court together for 3� years.
The last time they had played was in the quarter-final round of the U.S. Nationals in September 1964, Richey winning 6-4, 6-4 for her sixth victory over Billie Jean in seven tries. Since then strange things have happened. Billie Jean is not especially fond of clay, which neutralizes her wide-open, attacking game, and she has missed several clay-court tournaments over the years. Richey, on the other hand, cares just as little for grass, or any other fast surface that doesn't give her time to clobber forehands and backhands or run down opponents' shots. Billie Jean has two Wimbledon, one U.S. and one Australian title to her credit—all on grass. Nancy has won five straight U.S. clay-court championships, but has only one grass crown—Australia in 1967—and she has refused to play the prestigious U.S. grass-court circuit. For 42 months subtle charges and countercharges have been thrown about, each accusing the other of ducking a confrontation.
The most recent came a month ago when both were scheduled to play in a weekend charity tournament at C.W. Post College on Long Island. The day before it began, Nancy called in lame. (In fairness to Miss Richey, she does have a history of ailments that would endear her to medical students, most notably a chronic bad back and a bum knee.)
And so, last Friday night, while both women denied the existence of any feud, there was a certain amount of tension when they took the court—a nice slow Richey-type rubberized one, incidentally. Their only condescension to femininity were the tiny blue pompons Billie Jean wore on the backs of her sneakers and the orange headband that Nancy wore instead of her traditional Australian flop hat. Otherwise the two of them might as well have walked two blocks to the west and enacted a teminine version of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
Billie Jean started as though that was exactly what she had in mind. She won the first set 6-4, and then, while exhorting herself loudly to bigger and greater things, built up a commanding 5-1 lead in the second. Miss Richey broke her service in the next game and held her own to cut the margin to 5-3, but it seemed like a token effort. With Mrs. King serving the ninth game, they played to deuce and finally to match point for Billie Jean.
Then it happened. After a short rally, Mrs. King took the net and Miss Richey sent up a very average lob, which should have meant the end of the match. But Billie Jean hit it just a fraction of a second too late and it landed a foot behind the baseline. That brought the score to deuce and started Nancy on one of the most startling streaks of her—or anyone's—career. From there, the two girls played 51 points, and Billie Jean won just 12 of them. Miss Richey reeled off nine straight games in addition to the three she had already won to take the match in a fantastic reversal of form, 4-6, 7-5, 6-0. Billie Jean had not lost 12 straight games since she forsook a promising sandlot football career for the tennis courts.