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Chris Evert says she's going to cut back on her tennis-playing schedule next year, ease the pressure a bit. The rest of the women on the pro tour, especially Billie Jean King, think that's a great idea. Take all the time you want, kid. Billie Jean, battling to come back, met Chris, eager to take off, in the finals of the Colgate Series Championship last week and finished a decisive second. The matches, held at the Mission Hills Country Club near Palm Springs, included the top eight players in the world according to Colgate's 24-tournament rating system. Evert needed some luck to reach the final, but once there she showed why the women hope she has a lovely—and extended—vacation.
There was reason to believe King had a chance. She had been playing well. Evert just so-so, and the surface was cement, not as much to King's liking as Wimbledon grass but far better than Forest Hills clay. At 1-2 in the first set, Evert serving, King won three straight points to lead love-40. Three chances to break serve. But hitting shots to the absolute back corners of the court, Evert climbed back and won the game. "I took a good look at her when I won that game," said Evert later. "She seemed affected by it."
Destroyed would be more like it. Evert rattled off nine of the next 10 games on her way to winning 6-2, 6-2. Not once did King break service and at no time did she resemble the player who had raced through three opponents to reach the final.
"It's because Chris plays better against me than she does against anyone else," King said later.
"That's true," agreed Evert. "I still think of Billie Jean as the favorite. After all, when I first started playing her, I was just a 16-year-old kid and she was already a legend."
One month ago there seemed little chance that the legend would qualify for the tournament. She was No. 10 in the Colgate standings in early October, but successive wins in Phoenix, Brazil and Puerto Rico got her to Palm Springs in style. In fact, she wound up third on the list behind Evert and Betty Stove, a stroke of good fortune that put her into a round-robin bracket with Stove, Wendy Turnbull and Kerry Reid, a laugher compared to the other half—Evert, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova and Dianne Fromholtz.
King seemed delighted with her role as the aging veteran on the comeback trail. The evening before play began, when the women players received huge bonus checks from Colgate—Evert's was $100,000 for finishing first on the point list—King was ebullient. And after winning her first match, while Evert was losing hers, she was even more exhilarated.
"But I'm playing on borrowed time," she said. "Young players look to the future. I've been there. I'll quit when my knees tell me to." She did not say they would have to tear the uniform off her back.
In November 1976 Billie Jean underwent knee surgery for the third time, and since then she has been striving to regain her mobility. And possibly more. Her goal is another Wimbledon title, preferably in singles, which would give her a record 20. After surgery she spent two months in Montreal working out six hours a day—weight-lifting, running, hitting tennis balls by the thousand. With the Apples of World Team Tennis, she would rise early in New York and go to a gym to lift weights, often training side by side with Spencer Haywood of the Knicks.
But progress on the court came slowly, and Evert was often the reason. King reached the finals of the Family Circle Cup, but Evert wiped her out. At Wimbledon she again ran into Evert, this time in the quarters, and again Evert beat her easily. Same thing at Forest Hills. Approaching 34, with three scars on her knees, there was good reason to think Billie Jean would never win again, at least nothing prestigious. But then came the three straight tour victories and the trip to Palm Springs.