Never bet on the stooge team that tours with the Harlem Globetrotters. Do not place so much as a sou on the chances of sunshine in Seattle. God help you if you think that Wile E. Coyote will ever catch the Road Runner, that a ballplayer will volunteer for a pay cut after a bad season, or that a politician's promise is worth more than a half ounce of bat liver. And, please, if you have any sense at all, never wager against a 22-year-old tennis-playing millionairess named Christine Marie Evert.
Last Sunday afternoon in New York's Madison Square Garden, Evert, after a shaky start, played a normal sort of match for her—which is to say she was unerring and unflappable—and beat Sue Barker of England 2-6, 6-1, 6-1. She there-by won the championship of the Virginia Slims tour, the Silver Ginny trophy for earning the most tour points, a diamond-and-gold necklace and $50,000. Her 1977 tournament earnings, with nine and a half months to go: $174,500.
It was inevitable. Going into the four-day event, Evert had a 44-6 lifetime record against the three players in her half of the draw and an 11-0 edge over Barker. On the tour she might as well have been playing against Neiman-Marcus mannequins, winning 32 of 34 matches, 64 of 71 sets and 69% of her games. Here was a young woman who already had won Wimbledon twice, Forest Hills twice and the Slims championship thrice, yet there were tennis experts in the Garden claiming that Evert was one of the most improved players on the tour. Impossible. But true.
"She wins a lot of points now off her serve," said Rosie Casals, one of Evert's Garden victims, "whereas before, she just got it in. It was something to start out the game with."
"She has a more subtle change of pace on her shots," said ex-player Julie Heldman. "And she has a fine overhead now. She hammers it."
"She's hitting the ball so much harder," said the tour's executive director, Peachy Kellmeyer. "I think she's going to keep on improving."
There was more. Technical stuff, like how Evert cleverly disguises her drop shot, the tennis equivalent of a bunt laid down by a slugger. How she slices her backhand once in a while. How adept she is with a touch angle backhand, whatever that is. How she eluded the paparazzi and had a reasonably private dinner date in Manhattan with fellow Floridian Burt Reynolds, actor and hall-of-fame centerfolder.
All this means that Evert is rolling in money and is up to her long eyelashes in trophies, but that Virginia Slims and women's tennis in general are stagnating a little. The four championship sessions in the Garden drew 39,234, significantly better than either of the last two years, when the event was held in Los Angeles, but average tournament attendance rose less than 1,000 over 1976. CBS televised four Slims finals in 1976 and beat the men's Avis Challenge Cup rating on NBC, but no Slims events were televised nationally this year. CBS apparently thought it could make more money with golf.
After seven years, the cigarette sponsor is still satisfied with the tour as a promotion/advertising vehicle, and promoters at most of the stops made money. Still, it is obvious that in order to fill more seats and lure back TV, women's tennis needs to find some strong competition for Evert, or it will continue to have finals that have all the suspense of shark vs. sardine.
There are some prospects. Tracy Austin, the California wonder child, is not yet 15 but has played in several Slims tournaments and has won a few matches. Billie Jean King, the California wonder woman, returned to singles play last week at age 33. She wanted to be admitted to the Slims championship as a "wild card" selection but she was rejected because she had not played in any singles matches on the circuit. So she entered a San Antonio tournament and came close to meeting transsexual Renee Richards in the semis. CBS planned to televise their match, but Richards was beaten in the quarters. After three knee operations, it will be difficult for King to reach the top level again.