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Joe Jares
July 16, 1973
That's what America's women made of an otherwise wilted Wimbledon, and in the end it was peerless Billie Jean King who was the show's finest flower
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July 16, 1973

A Bloomin' Winner

That's what America's women made of an otherwise wilted Wimbledon, and in the end it was peerless Billie Jean King who was the show's finest flower

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By the time Billie Jean King and Chris Evert got to Centre Court last Saturday, the sacred grass was just about as tattered as all the other traditions at Wimbledon. Things were a bit scruffy, as they would say at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club—hardly the setting for anything remarkable. But right there, in that brown and trampled scene, Billie Jean (see cover) put on an immaculate exhibition of tennis. Every move was crisp and clean in a first set that must rank as one of the gems of her career. She lost only nine points while beating Chris 6-0, and when she followed that with a 7-5 win she had captured her second straight Wimbledon title and her fifth in the eight times she had reached the finals there. Scruffy, indeed.

The performance was the one flawless highlight in a definitely flawed fortnight. Before Billie Jean and Chris curtsied in unison to the Royal Box, Wimbledon had been on its uppers.

One could scarcely grasp the tradition-shattering enormity of it all. Bookies were not only taking bets on Ilie Nastase's chances of winning, but also on just when he would bend for a low volley and split his form-fitting shorts. Fried onions were banned from the concession stand under Court One because of odors that offended the spectators above. The male hero turned out to be no classicist of form and fashion, but a Swedish Beatle, 17-year-old Bj�rn Borg, around whom swarmed coveys of squealing teeny-boppers adorned in such inspirational garb as sweat shirts proclaiming, " Borg is Beautiful." And more: hometown hero Roger Taylor, who lives by Wimbledon Common, committed 20 double faults on Centre Court, maybe the worst performance since 1877 when both finalists served sidearm. Which led to the final distress: for the first time there was an all-Communist men's final. Whither Britain, whither Australia, whither Empire?

Part of this occurred, of course, because Wimbledon was struck—not by the ball boys or hedge clippers, but by nearly all the leading men pros, members of the Association of Tennis Professionals. The tournament had banned Nikki Pilic because his own national federation had suspended him for not showing up to play Davis Cup matches for Yugoslavia. In turn, Pilic's ATP union brothers boycotted the tournament, a move that was treated by most of the British press like a plot to steal the crown jewels. Thus when Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia, originally the 15th seed, beat Russia's Alex Metreveli 6-1, 9-8, 6-3 in a dreary men's final, he joined the honor roll of champions all right, but with a huge asterisk beside his name.

There were other breaks with the past. This will be remembered as the Wimbledon in which Billie Jean King helped form a union of her own, the Women's Tennis Association, and became its president. Then, after she had won her fifth singles title, ninth doubles title (with Rosie Casals) and third mixed-doubles title (with Owen Davidson) for her second triple crown at Wimbledon, she went back to eating her beloved ice cream—vanilla, which somehow does not seem quite right for her. Early in the year she had polished off a three-scoop sundae in Miami and vowed she would not touch the stuff again until after Wimbledon.

There are not as many esteemed names in women's tennis as there are in men's, but at least the women's Big Four was on the scene. The ingenues: Evert and Evonne Goolagong of Australia, who, according to one frustrated rival, "just saunters around at the same happy speed, hitting winners all over the place." And the old pros: Australian Margaret Smith Court, three-time Wimbledon champ, and King, at 29 playing in her 13th Wimbledon.

They were the four top seeds and they came through the draw to fight it out on Centre Court in the semifinals. King, Evert and Court had endured some three-set struggles along the way, but Goolagong had been gamboling and straight-setting everybody she met, as comfortable on the grass as a wood nymph.

The fact that the semis came on the Fourth of July should have been a warning to the Aussies. Evert battled top-seeded Court first and obviously erased from her mind the nightmare Paris final a month before in which she was serving against Court for the French championship with a 5-3 lead and blew it. This time Evert won a statistically weird contest, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1, helped by her own passing shots and radar-guided lobs and Court's nine double faults. Evert played smoothly but Court was clearly not her dominating self, perhaps ground down by a heavy tournament schedule and the proximity of Bobby Riggs (playing in the elderly gents' doubles where he and partner H. K. Richards were eliminated in the third round). King then marched into the hot arena and did not play particularly well but beat Goolagong 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 to set up the first all-American women's final since Althea Gibson beat Darlene Hardin 1957.

"Too bad we don't have little American flags to wave," said a U.S. journalist. "Maybe we should all wave our American Express cards."

(Across the Atlantic in Fort Lauderdale about this time the phone was ringing at the home of Jim Evert. He answered and a voice said, "Daddy, I won!" Whereupon the elder Evert said, "Who is this?" "It's Chris," the voice replied. Proud papa later explained the exchange: young daughter Jeanne was playing in the national amateur clay championships in Chattanooga. "Their voices sound a lot alike," he muttered.)

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