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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Davis Cup protests, 1977

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Newport Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, is a long way from the english lawns upon which tennis was first played. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as if ever there was an occasion when the vicarage garden party image of the game was irrevocably laid to rest it was at this West Coast resort on Sunday 17 April 1977.

This is the tale of the minister of the Church, the oil slick, the racket attack and the mass demonstration. it doesn’t sound like an everyday story of ordinary tennis folk but then it’s not everyday that the United States plays South Africa in the Davis Cup at the height of the apartheid debate.the tension had been mounting for over a decade.

The serious side to this strange affair had been a major problem for years. Official United Nations policy was to strongly discourage all sporting contact with ‘racist South African sports bodies’, but many nations purpotedly ‘put sport above politics’ and played on. Anti-apartheid activists said that such blind-eye attitudes simply condoned racism and there had been trouble almost everywhere South African representatives played, not simply directed against them but their hosts as well.

In 1968 the Sweden vs Rhodesia tie in Bastad had to be moved to Bandol in the South of France as a 1,500-strong rioting mob, some armed with iron bars, lumps of concrete and bottles, made play impossible.

A year later, but rather gentler, it was Great Britain‘s turn as bags of flour hurtled over the stands to bomb the court at the Redlands Club in Bristol. other nations, meanwhile, did refuse to play, none more nobly than India who passed up the chance of glory by declining to face South Africa in the 1974 final.
‘Dwight Davis must have turned in his grave,’ said Lawn Tennis magazine of the man who founded the competition back in 1900 in the spirit of friendly national rivalry. Hence the enhanced significance when South Africa travelled to ‘white supremacist’ United States in 1977.

Trouble they expected and trouble they got. Seven hundred demonstrators constantly chanted ‘South Africa go home’ outside the court arena but both sides refused to be deterred from simply playing tennis. Police ejected early court invaders and amongst the real fans a spirit of ‘the match must go on’ began to build.

It was after America had built a 2 rubbers to 0 lead that a church minister decided on more direct action. Home pairing Stan Smith and Bob Lutz were already 2 sets to 0 ahead against Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram when 29-year-old black activist Reverend Roland Dortsch rushed wildly on to the United States end of the court and emptied a plastic bottle of motor oil over the green surface. His colleague Deacon Alexander had his on bottle snatched before he could add to the spreading slick.

But as the American party saw red, the Reverend got more than he bargained for. Team captain Tony Trabert, heroic veteran of many Davis Cup matches during the much calmer 1950s, flailed at him with a racket backed by the cheering 6,000 crowd.
It took 41 minutes to clean the court and just a little longer for America to clinch the tie with a 7-5 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory. ‘UNITED STATES CLEAN UP’, said the Times.

Scenes very foreign to the game of lawn tennis they certainly were but Trabert was unrepentant:

“I brought a good old graphite racket along as a weapon and just hit them a couple of times,” he explained later.

The South African captain backed him all the way:

“I was very happy with the genuine crowd and the police have been wonderful,” he told reporters. “What Trabert did to the court invaders really makes you feel good.”

Strange demonstrations, strange retaliations and strange reactions. Who could blame Dwight Davis if he’s still turning today?

Rod Laver

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

Rodney George Laver was the most astounding player I ever saw, and may have been the greatest ever. His record is without parallel. Consider what that record might have been but for his exclusion from 21 Grand Slam tournaments when he was, presumably, at his physical peak, between the ages of 24 and 29. Had professionals been eligible for those events, Lew Hoad might have had the better of laver for a year or so and Ken Rosewall would always have been worth an even-money bet. But one has to believe that from 1963 to 1967 Laver would have collected another bunch of major championships and perhaps a third Grand Slam. Laver overlapped and dominated two Grand Slam eras separated by seven years. He did so because he had it all. Because he was adventurer and artist in one. Because he could raise his game to any level demanded of it.

Laver was only 5ft 8 1/2in tall and usually weighed around 10st 71lb. But he had gigantic left arm and his speed and agility were breathtaking. The circumference of his left forearm was 12in and the wrist measured 7in. The strength of that wrist and forearm gave him blazing power without loss of control, even when he was on the run at full stretch. The combination of speed and strength, especially wrist-strength, enabled him to hit ferocious winners when way out of court – often when almost under the noses of the front ow of spectators. And he was a bow-legged, beautifully balanced, and as quick as a cat. He had some glorious matches with Rosewall – and with Tom Okker, who could match Laver’s speed and panache but was second-best in terms of strength and technical versatility. Laver also had the eyes of a hawk and fast anticipation and reactions. Like Budge, he was feckle-faced and had copper-coloured hair. Another distinguished feature was a long nose that, in spite of the kink in it, gave a false impression of hauteur. For much of his career Laver was confessedly shy and self-conscious, but there was no ‘side’ to him. He was easy going – except on court.

Marty Riessen once summed up Laver admirably: “To look at him walking around, you wouldn’t think he was world champion. He doesn’t stand out. His stature isn’t something you expect, like a Gonzales or a Hoad. Off the court, his personality seems almost retiring. But it’s as if he goes into a telephone booth and changes. On court he’s aggressive. Such a big change of personality – when a lot of players play the same as they act. What impresses me is his quickness. Speed enables him to recover when he’s in trouble. And the thing I learned from playing Laver is how consistent one can be with power. It’s amazing how he can keep hitting with such accuracy. He combines everything. There are a lot of good competitors. But he’s fantastic.”

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1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

Sarah Virginia Wade, popularly known as Ginny, was only the third British player since Dorothy Round, in the 1930s, to win three women’s singles Grand Slam tournaments. The other two were Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones, who both won on the extremes of court surfaces, grass and clay, whereas Wade’s Grand Slam titles were all on grass. Intensely patriotic, she represented her country for an unparalleled span of years: and her crowning achievement was to win Wimbledon in 1977 when the 100th championships coincided with the 25th anniversary of Queen Elisabeth II’s accession to the throne. The Queen was present for the occasion.

Wade’s patriotism had been diverted from South Africa. Her mother was born there, of British parents, and graduated from Rhodes University before moving on to Cambridge, where Wade’s father, an Oxford graduate, was chaplain. The youngest of four children, Wade was 11 months old when the family settled in Durban, where the archdeacon’s daughter turned out to be a bundle of inexhaustible energy, became obsessed with tennis, and gradually developed a tempestuous, slam-bang playing style. She was 15 years old and one of the nation’s most promising juniors when – South Africa having become a Republic outside the Commonwealth – the Wades returned to England, in February, 1961. At first they lived at Wimbledon, where Wade went to the local grammar school and, with her sister, joined the club across the road from the All England Club. She saw her first Wimbledon that year (Angela Mortimer beat Christine Truman in the first all-British final since 1914). It was in 1961, too, that the family moved to Kent and, this time, stayed put. All one needs to add to that potted off-court history is that Wade, the daughter of a clergyman and a mathematics teacher, studied at the University of Sussex and graduated in general science and physics in June, 1966 – her examinations coinciding with the more energetic challenges of a Wightman Cup contest at Wimbledon.

That background was important. As a much travelled teenager from a scholarly, intellectual, upper middle-class environment rooted in the vicarages of two nations, Wade was a rare commodity. Thee were plenty of players around who could list one or two similar items in their curriculum vitae, but none who combined so much that was unusual. Wade was a throwback to the kind of players who had graced Wimbledon half a century earlier. Inevitably she was something of a misfit in the context of the international tennis circuit as we knew it in the 1960s and 1970s. With her slightly haughty manner, her up-market accent, and her coterie of social and cultural peers, she dod not find it easy to mix with the street-smart hoi polloi. It was as much to her credit as theirs that, while remaining a mite eccentric, she eventually became part of the family. It might have happened sooner but for her comparatively cloistered upbringing.

All that goes some way towards explaining why, in her early years on the tour, Wade lacked a winning personality. It also partly explains why she found it difficult to keep a rein on a passionate nature that often erupted into querulous and unseemly on-court tantrums. She was agressive, turbulent, volatile, highly strung. Often, she was so nervous or distraught that her stroking technique and tactical sense were adversely affected. On such occasions she could lose to inferior players: as happened, notably, when Christina Sandberg, Pat Walkden, and Ceci Martinez beat her in the Wimbledons of 1968, 1979 and 1970. It sat oddly with Wade’s social and academic development that, at times, she could be capable of ill-tempered outbursts and tactical naïvety. She could not always control the fires burning within her – but they never went out. Wade always had star quality or, as friend once put it, a ‘divine spark’. She enjoyed going on stage at players’ cabarets. She saw herself, I suspect, as part of the ‘Establishment’ class born to exert authority. And as the years went by she mellowed, achieved emotional maturity, played with smiling self-assurance, and ceased to get rattled. She learned to control her temperament, her game, and her opponents.

Even the ‘phase one’ Wade was capable of great performances: spectacular, exciting, dramatic, but eschewing the infuriating wildness that punctuated those early years. The demons within were tamed on special occasions in 1968, 1971 and 1972. Her success in the first Open tournament, at Bournemouth (her birthplace), had no moe than historic signifiance, because the women’s event was a sideshow to the men’s. But in the first US Open championships in 1968 she was devastating, beating such formidable opponents as Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart, Ann Jones and Billie Jean King without conceding a set. She was the first British player to win the US women’s title since Betty Nuthall in 1930. The cheque for $6,000 mattered far less than the consistent splendour of Wade’s tennis in winning it. In a tent by the Forest Hills clubhouse she attentively poured champagne for the small contingent of Brits. In those days, there were not many of us around. I recall the stray thought that Wade – like Fred Perry before her – had a character in harmony with the bustling aggression of New York.

1968 Virginia Wade at Tennis Championships at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, News photo

A different source of satisfaction came in the 1971 Italian championships, at that time the toughest clay-court test outside Paris. Wade liked Rome. She liked the tournament. But slow clay was not her scene. She had never mastered it: because patient, devious manoeuvring was not in her nature. That year, the field of 16 was mostly modest. But in the final Wade beat Helga Masthoff (formerly Niessen), who had once committed herself to the opinion that there was no way Wade could ever beat her on clay. Masthoff, tall and unhurried, wth more than a hint of hauteur, exuded the airs and graces of a rather supercilious grande dame. Off court, she had a droll sense of humour. On court, her iron-clad composure (plus the sharpest of tactical wits) could make the likes of Wade seem emotionally dishevelled. Beating her in Rome meant a lot to Wade. But as she poured champagne again, this time on the sunny terrace of the Foro Italico, Wade merely osbserved ‘I’ve learned how to play on this stuff’.

In 1972 Wade beat Evonne Goolagong, the French and Wimbledon champion, in the Australian final. But we had to wait more than five years for the ‘phase two’ Wade to win Wimbledon. She had been playing there since she was 16 (altogether, she contested the singles for 24 consecutive years). The semi-final pairings suggested that Sue Barker was more likely than Wade to win the title for Britain. But Betty Stove beat Barker: and Wade eventually overwhelmed Chris Evert, a result that left Evert in shock for days.
Then Wade beat Stove – whereupon the centre court became a raging sea of Union Jacks, applauding hands, echoing roars, repeated hurrahs, and the improvised paradox of ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’. It was rather like the last night of the Proms: one of those special occasions on which the British let their hair down. Everything had coincided to make this a great day: anniversaries for Wimbledon and the Queen and, most of all, the long-deferred triumph of a player closely identified with tradition, royalty and patriotism.

Virginia Wade

Wade was 5ft 7in tall and her weight usually hovered around 9st 7lb. She was dark and lithe, springy and athletic, thoufh rather heavy-footed. Her blue eyes had icy, alarming clarity. She had a graceful yet restlessly untamed air about her. One sensed the threatening reserves of nervous and physical energy, the jungle instinct, the prefeence (on court) for action rather than cerebral indulgences. In most of this she had much in common (and was aware of it) with the big cats. It was easy to imagine Wade in the latter role, bounding on to her prey and tearing it to bits. That natural athleticism, aggression and fighting spirit was the main reason for her success. Her racket-work was not exceptional. She had a superb first service, delivered with a classically fluent action, and her volleys were boldly terminal when she took care with them. The forehand was dangerous but often wayward, the backhand more consistently damaging – she put so much ‘work’ on the approach shot that, once over the net, it became almost subterranean.

Wade was a mass of contradictory qualities, not least the fact that she seemed to be thorougly English in spite of her South African upbringing and a disposition that was probably more suited to New York (where she was to settle) than the Home Counties. She aroused conflicting emotions but nobody could feel dispassionate in the presence of so much passion. In her autobiography Wade pointed out that she had the same birthday as Arthur Ashe (two years older) and that they were the first US Open champions and both won Wimbledon at the age of 31. Add the big services, the cultural interests and the African connections, and you can begin to believe in the influence of the stars.