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"When I first started out in tennis, I would rather play artistically than win," she says. "You get more satisfaction that way, but of course, when you lose, however artistically, you don't get the privilege of going out there and performing the next night, too. That was the hardest thing in tennis for this little girl to learn."
In the final dash to the top of tennis, it was not really that her game improved markedly so much as it was that she finally came to grips with who she was and that she could win. After that, there was nothing much to it, really, because everything was already in place. The hardest thing for this little girl to learn was that she had to be true to herself, to follow those passions. She was not well-rounded; she was this athlete with a zeal for achievement in a society that had no truck with women like that.
Her family—"straight out of Archie Bunker," according to Larry—was solid, traditional Protestant middle class, fired by hard work and a fear of God. Even now, her parents would like to see her abandon all this gallivanting around the world and settle down and have some kids. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Billie Jean deviated little from the values of her happy home. Her father, a fireman, was also a devoted sports fan, and so the daughter's participation in sports was not considered aberrant any more than her deep religious conviction. After all, going back at least as far as Jo March, little girls have been tolerated as tomboys.
Billie Jean's minister was the pole-vaulting parson, the Rev. Bob Richards. One day, when she was 13 or 14, he asked the little girl, idly, in a throwaway pastoral way, "What are you going to do with your life?"
She flabbergasted him by shooting back: "Reverend, I'm going to be the best tennis player in the world."
And yet, within another year or two, Billie Jean had learned that that was not an acceptable projection; she had learned to shade her dreams. Around this time, when she was 15, she wrote a high school theme, taking as a subject her first imagined trip to Wimbledon (which she correctly envisioned to be in 1961). The composition began: "Thump, thump, thump beat my heart. This can't be true. Here I am in New York City at 5 p.m. leaving by plane for Wimbledon, England. I still can't believe it. Here I am, 18 years of age and in one week I will be participating in what is considered to be the Tennis Championships of the World."
The story goes on. Boarding the plane, she meets Ramsey Earnhart, then one of Southern California's brightest prospects, whom she had a crush on. Darlene Hard, then a top U.S. player, greets little B.J. at the airport in London and drives her to the hotel. Darlene, Billie Jean advises us, "owned a red '50 Chevy convertible, slightly lowered, with twin pipes." Then the tournament begins, and Billie Jean reaches the quarterfinals against "none other than Darlene Hard" who beats her 10-8 in the third set. There, abruptly, the 1961 fantasy ends, but the 15-year-old appended an epilogue, which takes place in 1988, when she would be 45 years old: "Here I am at home 27 years later, sitting at home with my four wonderful children (At times they're wonderful). After the summer of '61 I entered Pomona College, in California, spending five years and graduating with a Masters Degree. I married Ramsey Earnhart—remember that boy I met on the way to the plane that day? Even though I never did achieve my ambition in tennis, I'm so glad I went ahead and received a higher education than high school instead of turning out to be a tennis bum."
And, in substance, Billie Jean lived out the first of her well-rounded declarations. She "messed around" in college, married a handsome young man, and turned tennis into a respectable, part-time pursuit, like a bridge club or stamp collecting, so that she could finish her higher education and help support Larry while he worked for his degree and their future. That just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. About then, Margaret Smith also packed it all in and went back to Perth to run a boutique.
It seems simply impossible now to contemplate how anything could have swayed Billie Jean from her destiny, to imagine how she, of all persons, would casually put it all aside when she was so very close to her goal of preeminence. She shrugs. "I know," she says. "It just shows you how totally conditioned I was. I wanted to live exactly like everybody else." She began dedicating herself to tennis only after Larry encouraged her to do so. Somehow, coming from him, that made it all right. Larry was sort of society's agent. She married him because it was the right thing to do, and so if he said it was O.K. to play tennis, well then, that was a proper enough endorsement. Her first full-time year, 1966, she won Wimbledon at last, and, along with the player, the person that is Billie Jean also began to flower.
Her presence is felt almost immediately when she enters the courts to practice, and not only because she is likely to have brought along a radio to provide some truly beautiful background music. Suddenly, the courts are alive with a bonhomie, a fresh give-and-take, and she is the cynosure.