Billie Jean King

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy (published in 1990)

Like Ashe, Billie Jean King had a pioneering zeal that made her an inspiring leader of many causes. If there was no crusade available, she invented one. They included her campaign for parity of prize money and draw numbers between men and women; the introduction of professional ‘team tennis’ and the concept’s expansion to other levels of the game; her famous ‘Battle of the Sexes‘ with Bobby Riggs, an occasion that had implications and effects outweighing the showbiz razzmatazz; her role in forming the Women’s Sports Foundation and re-enforcing the women’s liberation movement; and a maze of associated business ventures. For all that, King will most obviously be remembered for her supreme tally of Wimbledon titles during a span of 23 years. She began that Wimbledon saga as ‘Little Miss Moffitt’ and ended it as a self-styled ‘Old Lady’ who seemed to be part of the furniture. By that time she had graduated to the same class of all-time Grand Slam champions as Helen Wills and Margaret Court. But neither of these (nor any other woman, for that matter) matched King’s revolutionary status. consequently, because of her combined achievements on and off court, she became the most important figure in the history of women’s tennis.

King’s father, an engineer in the Long Beach fire department was an all-around athlete but had no interest in tennis. Her mother was a good swimmer and her brother Randy became a major-league baseball pitcher. When she first played tennis, at the age of 11, King used a racket borrowed from a friend. Then she popped spare nickels and dimes into a jar until she had $8, which was all she needed to buy a racket from the local sports shop. She made the most of the free lessons available in pubic parks at Long Beach and seized the chance to study celebrities in action at Los Angeles. King particularly liked the serve-and-volley style of Louise Brough and at 15 she spent three months receiving weekend tuition from another one-time US and Wimbledon champion, Alice Marble, who had a similarly aggressive game. Aspiring climbers are taught not to reduce the leverage of fingers and toes by getting too close to the rock. For different reasons, Marble warned King not to get too close to the ball.

Moffitt spent three years at Los Angeles State College, where she met a law student called Larry King. They were to marry in 1965. Meantime she was developing a liking for Wimbledon. In 1961, aged 17, the tomboyish Moffitt won the Wimbledon doubles with Karen Hantze, 18. King built rapidly on that early success and in 1963 she reached the Wimbledon singles final. But the road to full-time tennis was rather bump in those days and King as 21 before she could press the accelerator hard down and keep it there. Late in 1964 Bob Mitchell, the Melbourne businessman who had previously helped Margaret Court, offered to pay King’s way to Australia, where Mervyn Rose improved her groundstrokes and service and put her through a sharpening programme of training and practice drills. With a remodeled game and a total commitment to the circuit, King brought increasing confidence and intensity to her 1965 campaign. Court stopped her in an Australian semi-final and US final. Bueno stopped her in a Wimbledon semi-final. But King had beaten both in previous years, before Rose brought a bloom to her tennis, and thee could no longer be any doubt that the Court-Bueno duopoly of grass was not going to last much longer.
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Venus Williams in 1994

Venus made her professional debut on Monday, October 31, 1994, beating 59th-ranked Shaun Stafford in the first round of Bank Of The West Classic in Oakland. She almost beat the world No.2 Arantxa Sanchez in the next round, leading 6-3 3-1.

Robin Finn of the New York Times wrote: “Venus Williams is the most unorthodox tennis prodigy her sport has ever seen. She is a 14-year-old African-American girl with a ghetto in her past, a total absence of junior competition in her present and a plan to spend no more than a decade pursuing Grand Slam titles and six-digit purses so she can put a college degree in her future.”

Shaun Stafford: “She moves extra well for her height, she’s got a great serve and it’ll get better. It’s exciting for tennis to have her here. When I came on the tour at 19, I was intimidated, but here she is at 14, ready to play the pros. It’s unique.”

Venus joined the WTA tour full time in 1997 and reached the US Open final, losing to Martina Hingis.

Source: On this day in tennis history by Randy Walker

14-year-old Serena Williams makes her professional debut, losing in the first round of the Quebec City tournament’s qualifyings to Anne Miller 6-1 6-1.

Robin Finn of the New York Times wrote: “Instead of a stadium showcase, she competed on a regulation practice court at a tennis club in suburban Vanier, side by side with another qualifying match. There were no spotlights, no introductions, not even any fans. Her court was set a level below a smoky lounge bar that held a bar, a big-screen television, an ice cream cart and 50 or so onlookers with varying stages of interest in her fate.”

Serena: “I felt bad out there because I lost. I didn’t play like I meant to play. I played kind of like an amateur.”

Anne Miller: “I guess I played a celebrity… She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events the way Anna Kournikova has to learn how to become match-tough. There really is no substitute for the real thing. I felt like a complete veteran compared to her.”

A year before, Serena’s older sister Venus had defeated the world’s 58th-ranked player, Shaun Stafford, in straight sets in her pro debut in Oakland, then led No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez 6-2, 3-1 before losing in three sets.

Serena did not play another pro event for another 17 months, when, in her fifth tournament back, she dispatched Monica Seles along with Mary Pierce in Chicago. She captured her first WTA title in 1999 in Paris, defeating Amelie Mauresmo in the final.

Anne Miller left the tour to return to college 3 years after her victory over Serena. She is now a stay-at-home mom in Portland and on the board of directors for a local nonprofit.

Sources: On this day in tennis history by Randy Walker, ESPNW

A few weeks after her pro debut, the Capriati mania keeps going on:

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the month of April all the indoor tournaments are over. The marking time after the Australian Open is finished. The game moves to the clay courts, and everyone begins looking ahead to the next Grand Slam, the French Open.

Clay has always been thought as the surface of Europeans and South Americans. The red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris, and the Foro Italico, in Rome, are part of the sport’s heritage, and players from the Continent and from South America do grow up on, and for the most part, do most of their playing stuff.

[…] Since the Open left Forest Hills for the hard courts of Flushing Meadow in 1978, there has been no great clay-court tournament in the United States. The US Clay Court Championships, once played in Indianapolis, died there in the mid 1980s when the courts were paved (to induce the men to play there before the US Open). The USTA still runs a US Clay Court Championships in May, but very few players ranked in the top one hundred ever show up.

The women still have Hilton Head, though. For the past eighteen years, they have played the Family Circle Cup at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, South Carolina. It represents the opening of the clay-court season for the women and has the feel of a big tournament, though it still retains the charm of a small one. The stadium at the Sea Pines Racquet Club seats about five thousand people. It is surrounded by soaring South Carolina pines which give the place a feeling of isolation. The real world seems much farther away than just across a bridge that leads to the honky-tonk towns and paper mills of the South Carolina and Georgia marsh country.

The field for this tournament is always strong. The prize money is as high as a non-Grand Slam women’s tournament (other than the Lipton) can be: $500,000 meaning that, under Women’s Tennis association rules, at least one of the top two-, two of the top four-, and four of the top eight-ranked players must be entered. In 1990, Navratilova was there, Arantxa Sanchez was there, Zina Garrison was there, and so was Natalia Zvereva. But they were not the stars of this week.

Jennifer Capriati was at Hilton Head, courtesy of Gerry Smith’s string-pulling. The only people pulling harder for her to make it to the weekend than Smith were the ones from NBC. For them a Navratilova-Capriati final would be straight out of Fantasy Island. Not only would they have a classic princess-grand dame matchup, they would have it with the grand dame’s pal and the princess’ hero/mentor – Christine Marie Evert herself – making her network debut in the commentary booth.[…]

And so it was that The Queen came to Hilton Head with the network hoping that The Kid would come through. She did – with flying colors. Still unseeded because she didn’t yet have a ranking, Capriati had to play Sanchez in the third round. No problem: 6-1 6-1. In the quarters, Capriati struggled a little against Helen Kelesi, but roared back to win. Now NBC and Gerry Smith had part of their wish – Capriati had made it to Saturday’s telecast. She would play Zvereva in one semifinal. Navratilova would play a lanky young Czech named Regina Rajchrtova, a quarterfinal over Garrison.

Naturally, Capriati-Zvereva would be the Saturday TV match. To ensure that the court would be clear for The Princess when NBC came on the air at 2 pm, the other semifinal was scheduled for 11:30. This did not exactly please Navratilova. She didn’t relish the role of second fiddle, so she took her sweet time getting ready to go out and play. It was almost 11:50 before the match – which she won in a romp – actually began.

Navratilova may not have been thrilled with all the Capriati mania, but she understood it.

“She’s a fresh face, the new kid on the block, everybody loves her,” she said. “I understand that. It’s amazing how young she is, though. I had been on tour three years before she was born.”

Navratilova was in the final. And after she destroyed Zvereva, so was Capriati, who by now was joyiding though the whole thing. She had a crew fom HBO (which had reportedly paid the family well into six figures) dogging her for a documentary; she had a million questions on her friendship with Chris, and she had boys and men making eyes at her. When the HBO producer told her that a twenty-three-year-old had described her as “hot”, Capriati rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God, don’t tell my father.” She also confided to friends that she had dreamed about TV star Johnny Depp and had a serious crush on Stefan Edberg. The Kid was growing up fast.

But she still sounded like a kid when she talked. When someone asked her about giving Zvereva a crucial point – overruling a call that had gone in her favor – she shrugged. “I just wanted to be fair. The ball was good? I should still have done the other points good.”
As for playing Navratilova, well, that was really something.

“I mean, it shows I’m up there with the great players, I guess,” she said. “I mean, I always watched her play, and now I’ll be out there on the court with her. To be out there with her will be great, you know, she’s really a lege.”

Sunday was something straight out of a fairy tale: gorgeous and sunny, the little stadium sparkling, with the trees rustling in the spring breeze. Andy Mill admitted that the Capriati-Navratilova matchup made his wife a little nervous.

“I told Chrissie she shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the situation,” he said. “She and Martina are certainly friends, but she’s closer to Jennifer. One is a friend, the other is a protégée.”

[…]Evert turned thirty-five in December – three months and eight days before Capriati hit fourteen. Now she sat in the TV booth with Dick Enberg as Capriati raced on court two steps ahead of Navratilova – “I wanted to get my lucky chair,” she said – while Navratilova was nearly knocked over by the NBC cameraman pursuing the teenager. She was not amused.

That was Martina’s last bad moment of the day, though. She was still The Lege and played near-perfect tennis to beat The Kid 6-2 6-4 in seventy-five minutes. Capriati hardly seemed bothered by it all. During the awards ceremony she thanked just about everyone on the planet, and when Bud Collins, the master of ceremonies, started to pull the microphone back, thinking she was finished, Capriati grabbed it back. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished.”
Collins, who knows a star when he sees one, dutifully handed the mike over. Navratilova was thrilled to win – “God, it was nerve-wracking!” she said – and Capriati was thrilled to be Capriati. NBC got the highest rating it had ever gotten on the Family Circle Cup, and a higher rating than it would get on the Wimbledon final. Evert’s reviews weren’t great, but they weren’t bad. Gerry Smith couldn’t stop grinning. And why not?

The Kid had come through like … well … like a Lege.

From Monica Seles autobiography, Getting a grip:

Key Biscayne, Florida. A tropical island paradise of stunning beaches and the longtime venue for the annual Miami Masters. A prestigious and glamorous event, it is often referred to as the “Fifth Grand Slam” and is a mandatory stop on the WTA schedule. In 2000 it was renamed the Ericsson Open but for years it had been called the Lipton Championships and it had always held a special place in my heart. When I was a gangly sixteen-year-old with stick legs and an incurable case of the giggles, I won my first Tier I title on that hard court. But that was a decade ago and it felt like I’d live a lifetime since then. A month had passed since my Oklahoma revelation and I’d been a “good girl” in my eating and working-out habits – meticulously recording every bite of food and form of exercise in my journal – and I had high hopes for a solid performance in the tournament.

The first few matches went by quickly. I faced Anna Kournikova in the fourth round and she pushed me to three sets. I’d lost to her at the same tournament in 1998 and didn’t want to do it again. […]
Anna wasn’t just a good tennis player, she was also smart. she had blasted open the financially lucrative door by making tennis sexy, and dozen of girls followed in hot pursuit. Suddenly players were showing up for matches with flawlessly applied makeup and carefully coordinated outfits that flashed as much skin as possible. While I’d been away from tennis in the mid-1990s, it had turned into a speed game and I was still trying to catch up to it. There was no way I had the time or energy to bother with applying lip gloss and smudge- proof liquid eyeliner before a match. The tour was going in a completely new direction and i was firmly entrenched in the old school. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to walk onto center court for a hitting session feeling confident in a skimpy outfit and smiling flirtatiously at the guys in the crowd, but my head and body were in no condition to do so. That tracksuit was staying on during my warmups, thank you very much.[…]

Anna, whose reputation as an “overrated” player is unfair – she’s beaten Hingis, Graf, and Davenport, was a strong top-ten player for years, and dominated the doubles world – had beaten me in Miami two years earlier, so I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I took the first set 6-1 but stuggled in the second. It was the first set I’d lost at that tournament. I shook it off and was relieved to take the third 6-0. In the quarterfinals I beat Amy Frazier, a flat-hitter who excelled on hard courts, but the victory carried a hefty price. During the second set I lunged to reach the ball and sprained my ankle. The pain shot up my leg and I immediately knew what I’d done. Pushing far out of my comfort zone, I ignored the pain to close the match. The moment I got to the locker room I wrapped my ankle and began to mentally prepare myself for playing Martina Hingis in the semis the following day. It wouldn’t be pretty. Even on my best days, Hingis could beat me – she’d done it just two weeks earlier at Indian Wells – and I certainly wasn’t feeling at the top of my game when I woke up the next morning with my ankle throbbing. I shouldn’t have been playing, but I didn’t want to pull out. Sponsors were depending on me, fans were excited about the match-up, and major money is lost when a televised match is canceled at the last moment. My people-pleasing personality and my donkeylike stubborness kicked into overdrive. It was a mistake.
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From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

With Capriati gone, the women’s field at Lipton lacked some sparkle. Evert was retired, Graf was still injured, and Navratilova wasn’t dragging her thirty-three-year-old knees onto a hard court until it was time to prepare for the US Open.

That left Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles as the only two name players in the field. Except that Sabatini didn’t last much longer that Capriati. She was swept out of the quartefinals by Conchita Martinez, an eighteen-year-old Spaniard who was still virtual unknown even though she had finished 1989 ranked seventh in the world.
Sabatini and Martinez had a number of things in common. Both were, as Navratilova put it, “huge”. Sabatini who had first attracted attention as a petite, dark-haired fourteen-year-old, had gown like the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. She still had stunning face, but she also had shoulders that would have made most football linebackers envious. She was five feet ten and weighed at least 145 (although the player guide listed her at 130).
Her walk, which reminded some people of that of Jim Brown, the great running back, was best described by Ted Tinling as “a provocative lurch. Seeing her approach,” he added, “one might be well advised to feel a fair amount of apprehension.” Martinez was almost as big as Sabatini but with none of her beauty. Both were belters, backcourters who used their power to slug opponents into submission. Two months shy of twenty, Sabatini was already viewed by some as a has-been. Or never-was. She had never really lived up to the potential she had flashed in 1985, when she reached the French Open semifinals at age fifteen. Her latin beauty and a superb marketing job by ProServ had made her quite rich, but she had never won a Grand Slam title. Graf, her contemporary, had won nine -and had beaten her eighteen times in twenty-one matches. The word among the players was that Sabatini had the game to be a great player, but not the mind.

Sabatini was not very verbal. If she won a match she would invariably say,

“I am feeling good mentally and physically. I was fighting to win. I was concentrated.”

If she lost, just as invariably the speech would go like this:

“Physically I am okay, but mentally I am not. I was fighting, but I was not concentrated.”

Her concentrated line came up so often that the question on the tour, when Sabatini played, became “Is Gaby orange juice [concentrated today]?”
Almost evey player on tour speaks some English, but some are better than others. Becker is virtually fluent in English and Graf is almost as good. Every Swede since Bjorn Borg has spoken good English. Sabatini had never been comfortable speaking English. But, according to Spanish-speaking players and journalists, she wasn’t much more comfortable in Spanish.

“Sometimes when I see her on TV, back home, I feel sorry for her,” said Alberto Mancini, also Argentine. “She really doesn’t have very much to say.”

Against Martinez, Sabatini wasn’t orange juice. She lost in straight sets. That left the tournament in Seles’ hands.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Seles came into the Lipton with a 1990 record of 2-3. The sophomore-slump whispers had already started.
What people didn’t know was that Seles had been distracted by her mother’s health. During the tournament in Boca, Esther Seles had undergone a hysterectomy. Monica had never had to deal with a serious illness in her family and, by her own admission, was a wreck.

“I mean, I knew she would be okay and all, but it was major surgery and she was in the hospital,” she said. “I really couldn’t keep my mind on tennis.”

Seles lost to Laura Gildemeister at Boca but was able to slip away relatively unnoticed because of Capriati. Now, with her mother out of the hospital and back at courtside, Seles was starting to blast the ball again. At the Lipton, she whipped Judith Wiesner in the final.

“I’m just happy to feel comfortable on the court again,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who I beat. I’ll have plenty of chances to play Steffi and Martina. I don’t even know if I’m ready to beat them yet.”