Really big news spurted out all over the place at the $150,000 Virginia Slims Championship staged last week in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. On the literary front it was learned that Julie Heldman is writing a tennis instructional for women, with the working title They Also Serve. The fashion parade was led by England's Virginia Wade, who actually won a match wearing a dress of frosted turquoise lame with a Marie Antoinette diamond-necklace neckline (rhinestones, really). When she strolled on court she looked as though she had chopped a few feet off a slinky evening gown before picking up her rackets. Then there was the latest episode of the sports world's favorite soap opera,
Chris Evert, Backcourt Wife.
In our last installment Chris and her tennis-star sweetheart, Jimmy Connors, had called off their wedding, and Connors was seen squiring that cutie of the car commercials, Mean Mary Jean. Well, America, this is to report that Mary Jean, the White Rock girl and Betty Crocker are all out of the picture and Miss Evert is back in. On the good authority of the society editor of the
Los Angeles Times
, the two champions were seen "holding hands while shopping the furniture room settings" at an L.A. store.
The sportswriters had a few tidbits to write about, too. Evert cruised through eight sets with the loss of only nine games to make her way into Saturday afternoon's nationally televised finals, where her opponent was the 18-year-old Czechoslovakian, Martina Navratilova. Evert started slowly, fell behind and then began to play aggressively, even at times charging to the net, an area heretofore about as familiar to her as the left bank of the Irrawaddy. She beat Navratilova 6-4, 6-2.
Her reward was a check for $40,000, boosting her 1975 women's-tour earnings to $121,450, which will buy a lot of love seats. Her poise and an array of laser-beam ground strokes invalidated her pre-tournament statement: "I don't consider myself No. 1 right now...there are four or five tough women players. It's so close that I don't think any one person stands out."
Increased depth on the women's circuit is a recurring theme from the players and their publicists. There were six different winners in the 10 Slims tournaments leading up to the championship in Los Angeles: Evert, Navratilova, Wade, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, just back in sneakers after having her second child. Evert competed in eight tournaments, won three and was runner-up in two more, but there was no undisputed czarina, as Evert was last year and Court in 1973.
The women had more than depth to crow about. Each of their 10 tournaments offered $75,000 in prize money and, for the first time, six of the 10 finals were carried by CBS, which claimed it was beating the NBC-televised men's matches in the ratings by a two-to-one margin. Was it only in 1970 that King and her little band of "women's lob" radicals broke away from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association and launched the first Slims "tour"? Yes, it was. In five years two bitty tournaments offering less prize money than a spelling bee have blossomed into a big business. They should call it Virginia Fats.
The L.A. championship, however, was not as star-studded as it might have been. The semi-retired King, who is up to her new Afro hair-do in TV work, magazine publishing and selling toothpaste, had not played in enough tournaments to qualify. Court was suffering from a muscle tear in a calf and decided not to risk further injury. That left Evert, Navratilova, Wade and Goolagong as the top seeds, and that was exactly the order in which they finished.
There were many who thought that the challenger with the best chance to knock off top-seeded Evert was the 29-year-old Wade, a mathematics graduate of the University of Sussex who won the first U.S. Open in 1968, the Italian Open in '71 and the Australian in '72. Wade went into L.A. on a hot streak, having won the previous two tournaments. In Dallas she had been down four match points to Navratilova in the final and fought back to win. In Philadelphia she beat Goolagong, King and Evert on consecutive days.
Her success was pleasing to the circuit's official dress designer, Ted Tinling, a tall, bald Englishman with prominent ears that make him look like a gargantuan pixie. He claims that he does not root for anyone, but like most of his countrymen he has often seen Wade tighten up and blow a match at sacred Wimbledon, where each summer she carries her tennis-loving country's hopes on her back.
"Perhaps she has learned a bit from Navratilova in the last few weeks," said Tinling in Los Angeles. "Martina keeps the pressure on her opponents, whereas Virginia has had a tendency to let the spark die."