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Mayotte curls a backhand horribly wide. "Much worse," says King.
Mayotte continues to send balls over the baseline. "Oh, Timothy Spencer Mayotte, I love you, you're absolutely precious," King says. "You're falling on your face."
King will correct anything; it does not matter how large or small. Your shoestrings. Whole philosophies. "If she didn't have a platform, she'd wither," said the late Ted Tinling, the clothing designer and unofficial historian of the women's game.
The impulse to correct has been in King, as best as she can remember, since she was 11 and was known as Billie Jean Moffitt. Clyde Walker, her teacher at the Houghton Park public courts in Long Beach, thought teaching would help her game, so one afternoon she gave her first lesson to a group of younger children. When she was 12, she sat on the veranda at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, the mecca of U.S. tennis at the time, and mused on the sport's elitism. "I thought, tennis has got to change," she says. "I swore if I ever got to Number One, I'd help do it."
It takes a measure of courage to work with King. She mingles warmth and indefatigable enthusiasm with brusque-ness and toxic sarcasm. "She can make you feel real stupid," Navratilova says. King coaches with her voice, her eyes, her hands, her feet—just about everything, including her racket, which she seldom employs to hit a ball. Instead, she cradles it in her arms or waves it like a pointer. But what's most noticeable about her method of teaching are the constant noise and laughter. "She can be maddening, and disconcerting, but she always makes it fun," Mayotte says.
She claps in time with her pupils' footwork drills. She pursues the two players with her alternately encouraging and hectoring voice. "They'll wear out before it does," she says. According to Kardon, the day King stops her flaying chatter, Navratilova and Mayotte will pack their rackets and go home. "If she ever stopped, that would mean, You don't have a chance," Kardon says.
Some of King's precepts come from teaching pros, some are a little bit Zen, and a lot of them she makes up as she goes along. But everything begins with her insistence on technical competence. Much of what she has done with Navratilova and is attempting to do with Mayotte is aimed at remedying their shocking lack of knowledge about their own games. The intense, literal-minded Mayotte and the brainy, complex Navratilova enjoyed years of success simply by overpowering opponents; they never had to understand what they were doing or why. That made them good frontrunners, but they were slow to recognize their weaknesses, and under pressure they were vulnerable to self-doubt. "Your confidence drops when your technique is weak," King says. "Your technique breaks down and your brain follows suit."
King teaches by questioning. She forces her two pupils to understand their games so that they can correct mistakes on the court. She told Navratilova over dinner when they began working together, "This is the last time you get to correct anything at the table. Losers correct afterward. Champions do it on the court."
Mayotte and Navratilova acquiesce meekly as King grills them on the ailing parts of their games. "What were you thinking when you hit that?" she asks. Mayotte never realized how predictable his game had become, never even realized he had lost his down-the-line backhand volley. Because of a flaw in his stroke, he cupped the ball, sending it back at an angle. "Now he's got that shot back," King says.
Her first chores with Navratilova were to improve her footwork and to strengthen her volley, which had become timid and shallow. Some of the things King looks for are longtime tendencies, such as Navratilova's childhood habit of swinging at her forehand volley and hitting everything from the baseline crosscourt. "Oh my God," King says, clapping a hand to her head as Navratilova rallies. "Two straight down-the-line forehands. What's the date?"