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This is the way it will be next Tuesday at Wimbledon's All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Billie Jean Moffitt King, 24, of Long Beach and Berkeley, Calif. will step onto center court for her first match to open the traditional Ladies' Day program, an honor reserved for the defending champion. That day, and for the rest of the championships, she will peer out from behind rhinestone-rimmed glasses that protect her 20/400 eyes from legal blindness. She won't be thinking about her lazy thyroid or her finicky colon, which have prompted doctors to suggest she get plenty of sleep and no tension, or even about the $80,000 contract she received for turning professional earlier this spring.
What she will be thinking about is winning. She will serve and volley well, and she will hit winners off both her forehand and backhand. And she will exhort herself by slapping her thighs, squinching up her nose and uttering things like, "You idiot!" "Hit the ball, you big chicken," "Move your feet," and "Get down, you fat little thing." ( Billie Jean is 5'6" tall and weighs 140 pounds, which does not make her fat, but then she wouldn't be mistaken for Twiggy either.) And maybe if she really is moved to bigger and better verbosity she will shout, "Peanut butter and jelly!" as an errant forehand slides over the baseline. Wimbledon fans will still love her, despite the snickers, as they loved another American named John Hennessey, who, not being familiar with the niceties of royal protocol, tipped his racket and said, "Hiya, Queen," when the regal Queen Mary entered the Royal Box during the 1928 championships.
Eleven days later Billie Jean will probably win Wimbledon, in the process putting down the strongest field ever assembled for the tournament. She will have her third straight Wimbledon title, something last accomplished by Maureen Connolly in 1952-54. And most important, she will take her rightful place beside Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody and Little Mo herself.
But for a lot of reasons nobody will be really quite able to accept that, and this is something that bothers Billie Jean. She is not egoistic about it, just curious. "I don't know what it is," she said. "Even people close to me just don't believe I'm all that good." There was a time when even Bille Jean didn't believe she was all that good. In September 1964, just a few credit hours away from a Los Angeles State College degree, she suddenly crated up her textbooks, left behind her fianc� and her family and headed for Australia and three months of tennis lessons. There was nothing too peculiar about this, except that Billie Jean was already one of the world's ranking players and had captivated tennis audiences everywhere. Now she wanted to turn her whole game inside out, because she still stood one cranky forehand and a good service away from the major championships—and recognized greatness.
Billie Jean did not go quietly. To all who asked she said, "I am leaving to become the No. 1 player in the world, and I can't do that and go to school at the same time," which is not the sort of thing one generally announces from the pro shop roof. As Maureen Connolly Brinker, who was a fair player in her day, said, "To do what she did was quite a brave step on her part."
"I was scared," Billie Jean said recently of that decision. "Terrified. It's bad enough when you say to yourself you're going to be No. 1, but when you tell people, wow. You suddenly feel maybe you haven't got it. When you ask anybody if they want to be No. 1—win Wimbledon or something like that—they naturally say 'yes.' But they don't really know what it's like, and when they don't make it, it's awful."
But she believed in herself, and so did Robert Mitchell, a Melbourne tennis philanthropist who financed her three months Down Under as he had earlier helped Australians Roy Emerson and Margaret Smith. More important, Mervyn Rose, the former Aussie Davis Cup player also believed in her and offered to coach her. What it was like was eight hours a day under Rose's tutelage, when she wasn't playing in various tournaments, mainly working on her flamboyant forehand (more top spin for more control), her service (more slice for more power and variety) and her court strategy.
"At the end of each day I was physically and mentally exhausted," Billie Jean said. "The whole thing was very discouraging. I would double-fault 15 times a match with that new service and lose to just about everybody. People told me, 'Go back to your old game. You can win with it.' But Merv convinced me my game would be better."
At the end of that Australian summer Billie Jean's game was better, and instead of winning a tournament one week and losing to an unranked junior the next, she proceeded to bomb just about everybody with great regularity. The real test came later in 1965, at the U.S. Nationals in Forest Hills, N.Y. In the finals she met an old nemesis, Margaret Smith, at the time the world's top-ranked woman player. Billie Jean built 5-3 leads in both sets before losing, but no matter. "After the match Margaret told me that was the best she had ever played," Billie Jean said, "and right then I knew I had it."
Until then Billie Jean was just another promising youngster, whose clawing and gutty style of play earned her the nicknames "Little Miss Moffitt" and "Jilly Bean" and the reputation of a lively firecracker who liked to go around beating hell out of her elders.