SI Vault
Walter Bingham
November 14, 1977
Billie Jean King had won three straight tournaments, but once again her nemesis was Chris Evert, who beat her to win the Colgate
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November 14, 1977

An Ambush On The Comeback Trail

Billie Jean King had won three straight tournaments, but once again her nemesis was Chris Evert, who beat her to win the Colgate

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The four-day round-robin matches leading to the Evert-King final were held at night in temperatures so cold that those few fans who showed up carrying parkas and blankets looked more a part of a Harvard-Yale football crowd. The lighting at Mission Hills was splendid for the players, but the harsh glare of the freshly painted lines of the court dazzled the linesmen into a rash of frightful calls.

One such call almost put Evert out of the tournament. It did cost her the first set in her opening match against Fromholtz. The two reached 6-6 in games, then 4-4 in the nine-point tie break. Set point both ways. After a rally, Fromholtz hit the ball several inches beyond the baseline, giving the set to Evert. Or did it? All eyes were riveted on the linesman, who tentatively turned palms down, signaling the ball in. There were whistles and shouts. Chris looked pained but said nothing. "I've always felt a champion shouldn't let things like that bother her," she said later.

So it was first set to Fromholtz and, not long after, the second set and match, too. She may have received a lifesaving call, but the left-handed Australian, one of only three players to beat Evert this year, played superbly. Evert looked wooden, moving awkwardly, especially when brought forward. She has been suffering from shin splints lately and had played only one tournament—winning in Atlanta—in the last seven weeks.

After losing to Fromholtz, Chris denied that her legs were hurting, saying that she simply wasn't tournament tough. In any case, she thought she was out of the event, not understanding the format.

But because it was a round-robin, Evert still had a chance, although she had to beat Wade and Navratilova to survive and then hope that they in turn would both beat Fromholtz. If Dianne won either match, her 2-1 record would put her into the final instead of Chris, whom she had beaten.

Evert had no trouble with Martina, moving much better than she had the night before, but her match with Wade was a death struggle. The two are not the best of friends, and Virginia's victory over Chris at Wimbledon has fueled the rivalry. Wade came into the match 1-0, having beaten Navratilova, so that defeating Evert would virtually assure her of reaching the final, Fromholtz having lost to Martina.

Bad calls and, worse, perplexing decisions following bad calls, abounded in the Evert-Wade match. Down 1-2 in the first set and game point against her, Evert hit a crosscourt forehand close to the sideline. Wade returned it and both players hit two more shots before Wade hit long. But even as the umpire cried deuce, Wade turned on the linesman and complained that Evert's crosscourt shot had been out. Remarkably, the linesman decided that perhaps he hadn't seen it after all and yielded to the linesman at the far end of the court who said the ball had been out. Game Wade. She led 3-1. Evert, showing genuine anger on the court for one of the few times in her life, dropped three straight games and the set.

But that was it. She won the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 amid more suspicious calls that had Wade screaming to the desert sky. Her disappointment over losing turned to outrage when she learned that she now was eliminated from the final, and she entered the press tent quivering. "I can't believe it," she said, on the brink of tears. "The format was not properly explained. How can one loss put me out? Chris has one loss. What about comparative set scores. I could wind up with five winning sets to her four." And then she bolted from the room.

Evert entered. "I think I handled the close calls better than Virginia," she said, an understatement. Someone asked her whom she wanted to win the next evening, Wade or Fromholtz. Chris looked puzzled. She still didn't understand the format. When it was explained that she needed a Wade win to make the finals, she nodded and smiled. "Well, now I know who I'm rooting for."

If Chris did root, it was in absentia. She was in her suite at the Racquet Club when she was told Wade had beaten Fromholtz in straight sets.

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