Although this was technically the third Slims Championship, it was really the first using what will probably be the enduring format, one that restricts the field to the elite. The first two were held on slow Florida clay and were won by the mistress of that medium, Evert. She was seeded No. 1 in Los Angeles, and it was justified. After all, she was the champion of Italy, France and Great Britain, had posted a 36-3 record on the winter-spring Slims tour and had become the first woman in tennis history to earn more than $100,000 in the first half of a year.
With her fiance, Jimmy Connors, and her father/coach watching each night, Evert defeated Fran�oise Durr, Casals and Virginia Wade. Except for a tiebreaker set she lost to Rosie, the matches were not close. Her serve showed obvious improvement and she was deceptively fast getting to well-hit shots. As usual, her ground strokes stayed just in. Surfaces were of no concern to her, she said. She had not even practiced on clay for a couple of months.
Goolagong's path to the final was much more difficult. She was forced into tie-breaker sets by Valerie Ziegenfuss and Lesley Hunt, only to find second-seeded King waiting in the semis—Billie Jean King, 30, president of the Women's Tennis Association, player/coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, magazine publisher, author and Forest Hills champion.
It was King who was chiefly responsible for the fat purse the women were pursuing and for the fatter purses that are sure to follow. The Virginia Slims Championships will return to L.A. next year (in April) with even more prize money offered, and the details are being hammered out now on a contract with CBS calling for live TV coverage of six 1975 tournament finals on Saturday afternoons. King the executive was glad to talk of such matters, but King the player was anxious to take the court.
"I want this championship," she said. "It's so important to me, first, because it pays the highest prize money ever offered and, second, because I want to see if I can win the toughest one after a long exhausting season."
She couldn't. Just as at Forest Hills, Goolagong won the first set and lost the second, but this time she changed the pattern and won the third, bringing roars from the crowd with some seemingly impossible saves.
"I thought I played the best I've played for a very long time," Goolagong said afterward, and then announced her strategy against Evert in the final: "To get in to the net as much as possible, because there's no way I'm going to beat her sitting on the baseline. If I do that well, I know I can beat her."
Goolagong had reason to be confident. At the Australian Open she had taken Evert 6-0 in the third set. At Forest Hills she had beaten her in a dramatic rain-delayed match that ended Chris' consecutive-match winning streak at 56. Just three weeks ago, in Denver, she had trailed Evert 4-1 in the third set and had won five straight games and the match. But despite her recent success, Goolagong's career record against Chris was seven wins, seven losses.
Goolagong and King had gotten a standing ovation at the end of their match, but the Goolagong-Evert match Saturday night before 7,049 might well have been better, even though Evonne won in straight sets. After Goolagong took the first 6-3, Evert jumped off to a 2-0 lead in the second, fell behind and twice had to break Goolagong's serve to stay in the match. In one rally Evert three times chased down overhead smashes by Goolagong and got them back. But while Evert was capturing Goolagong's serve in clutch situations, she could not hold her own and finally went down, fighting.
It was Goolagong's night and Goolagong's big payoff, but it was not too sad an occasion for Evert. She had raised her 1974 world earnings to almost $195,000, was nearing the end of the most successful year in her tennis career and she was, as some people tend to forget, still only 19 years old.