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Edwin Shrake
March 06, 1972
Mlle. Durr's strokes are bizarre, but she won $65,000 last year and now ranks high on the Virginia Slims tour
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March 06, 1972

A Long Way, B�b�

Mlle. Durr's strokes are bizarre, but she won $65,000 last year and now ranks high on the Virginia Slims tour

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As the women, or girls—whatever you call a bunch of females who are mostly in their early 20s—gathered at a long table gossiping and laughing, there was the feeling of watching some postgraduate sorority affair. They were an amazingly good-looking group of people, especially when one thought of the stereotype of the woman athlete. Nobody had a beard. Nobody looked or sounded like Ernest Borgnine. The ones who weren't still in sweat suits from a morning of practice were thoughtfully dressed. Billie Jean King—winner of 33 national championships, undisputed world champion for three years, last year the first woman athlete ever to win more than $100,000 in a season—wore curved, tinted glasses, black slacks and a Western shirt and, later, put on a rainbow poncho her husband Larry had bought for her in Panama. Wendy Overton, fifth-seeded, tall and blonde, looked like the product of a patrician Eastern girls' school. Nobody waddled, not a lumberjack in the group.

Lesley Hunt, a beautiful young blonde from Australia, drew Billie Jean King in the first round and cried out, "How could I have such luck!" The draw continued, presided over by the 64-year-old Britisher Pip Jones, tour manager, husband of 33-year-old former Wimbledon champion Ann Haydon Jones, who was cuddling their two-month-old baby. Frankie Durr, winner of five tournaments and $65,000 last year and winner of the French Open doubles championship the past five years, sat up smiling as her draw was announced. She rolled her eyes at Nancy Gunter, who sat at another table. "There is no use to worry. We just see what happen," Frankie said.

At a cocktail party and dinner that night at Quail Creek Country Club, Billie Jean King was saying, "Frankie is a hard worker. Does a lot to help this tour, and she's a fantastic player because of her mobility and consistency. She positions herself beautifully on the court. That serve of hers is more difficult to handle than it looks. She's always ready for your return, and if you step up and really try to put her serve away, you get the strangest sensation. It's like swinging at a nothing ball. You can't tell what you've hit."

"Frankie is the sweetest thing ever to come out of France," said Pip Jones. "It's a remarkable thing to watch her play tennis. There's not a better doubles player anywhere. I wouldn't recommend parents to take their children to see her to learn her strokes, which are unorthodox to say the least. But if you want them to learn tactics, tell them to watch Frankie."

As Pip Jones was speaking, Frankie Durr was smiling politely across the dinner table, making conversation with several local ladies. A few years before, Frankie would have had trouble eating or sleeping on the night before a match with a player like Nancy Gunter. But now she was taking it calmly, even though it remained in her thoughts. Frankie's game is based on hitting the ball back and not getting caught out of position rather than on attacking. "But one thing I can't do with Nancy," she whispered, "is stay deep and keep trading drives with her. Nancy's father did that with her for years, and she can keep hitting perfect balls that way all night long. I will have to mix it up, change the pace, try to throw her off."

Fran�oise Durr started playing tennis when she was 13 in Algeria, where her family had lived for four generations. Her father was a French colonel, a war hero who was killed on a routine flight in 1945, when Frankie was 3. She left Algeria during the revolution, moved to Paris with her mother, brother and sister, and took her unusual strokes ("Some people call them bizarre, but I think it is nicer to call them unique," she says) onto the international tournament circuit while in her teens. She astounded the other players with her grip—right forefinger extended along the handle, same for backhand and forehand—and with a backhand stroke that she could use to throw a Frisbee. But she began to win.

As a result, Frankie has played against all of the most celebrated women players of the last 10 years—and several of the men. With her game depending so heavily on tactics instead of power, she studies her opponents with care. One afternoon before her Oklahoma City match with Nancy Gunter, Frankie was asked to rate the top 10 women players, in her opinion, in order and discuss them. She thought about it for a while and then began listing them, not in the order prescribed by official rankings:

1. Billie Jean King. "She has no real weakness. She has power, but a nice touch as well, and she's a very nice person. I think I may have a little edge over her because I beat her last year and she knows I can beat her. She volleys so well that I try to go to the net before she does. She is a wonderful player."

2. Margaret Court. "Margaret is so big and very strong. She hits the ball hard and it's very heavy on the racket. I get tired playing her. If I go to the net, she's too tall to hit the ball past. I've beaten her once out of 10 or 15 times. I'm not strong enough to play her. She stays by herself, is not very friendly. Maybe that's the way to be a champion—by yourself on the top. When she's playing well, it's very hard for anyone to beat her."

3. Evonne Goolagong. "A very strange girl. She plays well or badly, depending on her mood. She's a talented, natural player. This year the pressure is on her because of her No. 1 world ranking. Last year she was relaxed. She can play any kind of game, stay back or serve and volley. She adjusts according to whom she's playing. I try to make her come to the net and pass her. If she stays back, she makes strokes I don't like. She can do anything with the ball. She's very young, only 20 now, but acts more like she's 15. She carries a tape recorder and music everywhere and travels always with her coach. She's a little special, won't really mix with the rest of us."

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