Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, Wimbledon 1979

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Saturday 7 July 1979 is a date that still sits proudly in the record books for the legendary Californian Billie Jean King, for it was the day she clinched her twentieth Wimbledon title, a feat which even the most recent legend of the ladies’ game, Martina Navratilova, has been unable to match despite repeated ‘final’ efforts to advance beyond 19. [Navratilova since then equalled King’s record of 20 Wimbledon titles in 2003]
Ironically enough it was the then 22-year old Navratilova who helped King clinch the record that day when they paired to win the ladies’ doubles against Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull in a 5-7 6-3 6-2 victory.

Remarkable as the feat was, the match would struggle to gain admission to the gallery of strangeness but for the events off-court which surrounded it. From there we enter the world of the positively spooky.
It was another Californian, Elizabeth ‘Bunny’ Ryan, whose record 19 Wimbledon titles King had been trying to pass ever since she equalled it with her singles win over Evonne Goolagong in 1975. But try as she might the record eluded her as she drew a blank in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and at age 35 it seemed it might never happen.

Elizabeth Ryan had looked on rather quizzically as each attempt failed. This gutsy grand old lady of the court, once a veritable Amazon but then well into her eighties, had confined to friends that she hoped to take the record to her grave. It was that sort of winning attitude (and a rather good regular partner by the name of Suzanne Lenglen) that had brought her the record, all comprising double wins, between 1914 and 1934. But it was Lenglen too who generally baulked her in the singles, earning miss Ryan, with her robust approach and famous forehand chop, the title of ‘the best player never to win a Wimbledon singles’.

As each year passed, Miss Elizabeth Montague Ryan, born 1892, became quietly convinced that she would never be surpassed. Living in London she was sprightly enough to get to Wimbledon, her spiritual home, whenever she fancied. She was there on Friday 6 July just 24 hours before her record fell, but she wasn’t there the next day to see Billie Jean make history.

The headline in the Guardian simply read ‘A CHAMPION CHAMPION TO THE END’. For, while walking around the grounds of the All England Club during her Friday visit, the 87-year old champion collapsed from a heart attack and died in the ambulance before reaching hospital. She had first fallen ill watching the antics of McEnroe and Fleming during the men’s doubles final, although there was nothing in their rather modern behaviour to establish cause and effect.

In the Guardian obituary David Gray, secretary of the International Tennis Federation, captured the mood succinctly: ‘Miss Ryan died,’ he wrote ‘as she had played – determined not to be beaten.’
Her niece Miss Elizabeth Partridge, meanwhile, gave a gutsy reaction:

‘I’m glad she didn’t live to see Mrs King’s win. It’s good that it’s happened this way. It’s much better for my aunt that way.’

There is never a good time to call it a day but Elizabeth Ryan’s sense of timing was certainly uncanny as the record ‘passed on’ in the strangest way possible.

Wimbledon 1978

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

The sign on the railroad platform reads Southfields – alight here for Wimbledon tennis. Upstairs, newspaper vendors crowd the sidewalk, each wearing a sandwich board advertising one exclusive or another pertaining to the chances of “Our Ginny”, “Stormy Ilie”, or “The Mighty Man from Michigan”. A long line of black taxicabs provides transportation to the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, two miles away.

Traffic thickens as you approach Wimbledon. Soon you see a long queue that has formed in the predawn hours at the wrought-iron main gate of the club. When the cab pulls up, a ticket tout opens the door and offers a pair of Centre Court seats a twenty-five pounds each. The markup is still a modest 500 percent; by final days the seats will fetch at least £100 each. The fortunate people at the front of the queue have a chance to buy one of the 300 Centre Court seats that are available to the public daily, but the vast majority are waiting to purchase grounds passes that do not guarantee seating anywhere.

If you have tickets or the proper credentials, you pass through the gate beneath the club crest, the green-and-mauve club flag, and the Union Jack. Inside you have a choice of wandering about the field courts, hoping to get close enough to watch part of a match, or going directly to any of several other queues. One is for standing room alongside the Centre Court, another for the handful of seats available for Number One Court. The bleachers at the other six show courts are filled fifteen minutes after the gates open at noon. Many spectators spend the better part of the day standing in line both inside and outside the grounds. The critical attendance point at Wimbledon is 31,000; it is exceeded almost every day.

Every few moments, the main gate swings open to admit a vehicle, usually a delivery truck, a Rolls-Royce bearing royalty, a Wimbledon courtesy car, or a rented limousine carrying players like Connors or Gerulaitis. Over three hundred competitors are eligible for official transportation. A few years ago, the club maintained a fleet of elegant Daimlers to ferry players back and forth from their London hotels. Now the job is left to British-Leyland, which uses fifty sedans and as many drivers. These courtesy cars are painted to advertise the tournament and the automobile company.

Wimbledon is gigantic in spirit, but the grounds cover just about ten acres. Stewards check the ebb and flow of spectators at each court; inside the clubhouse an electronic counting device registers the click of each admission turnstile. Each afternoon, a committee of club men wearing green-and-mauve ties surveys the crowd from the balcony above the main entrance to the Centre Court. They decide whether to keep the gates open or shut them down for the day. Then they adjourn for tea.

The Centre Court is an eight-sided edifice connected to the rectangular Number One Court by a common wall. The complex looks as if it has been pieced together from odd scraps of steel and random slabs of concrete. It is a maze of cream and loden halls and staircases rambling in myriad directions, with ivy-covered walls and window boxes of blue and pink hydrangeas.

The focal point of the grounds is the large scoreboard opposite the Number One Court enclosure. This enormous green panel, which bears the legend of results and the schedule for each court, faces the players’ tearoom. Spectators on the macadam walkway below can look up and spot the contestants through the tall glass windows or on the balcony above.

There is a public dining area near the main gate, flanking a small grassy picnic area. A variety of tents house bookstalls and souvenir shops, a Pimm’s bar and the famed strawberries and cream concession, as well as a gallery of food and beverage concessions built into the side of the Centre Court.

A sloping roof extends over most of the seats in the Centre Court, leaving only the standing room along either sideline exposed to the elements. The roof adds intimacy and turns the most significant piece of sod in tennis history into a stage suitable for Elizabethan drama. Number One Court is covered at both baselines and where the east stand is a towering structure that adds a breathtaking quality to the court. Courts Two, Three, Six, and Seven, directly across from the main enclosure, also have grandstands. The only other show court is Fourteen, in a distant corner of the grounds. The rest of the twenty-three courts are divided by low fences, narrow walkways, and tall hedges reminiscent of the mazelike gardens found on baronial estates.

The Wimbledon field courts, with the steeple of St. Mary’s Church in the background:

Wimbledon 1978

Southfields Station, on the District Line

Wimbledon 1978
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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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Margaret Court

45 years ago, Margaret Court completed the fifth calendar Grand Slam in history, after Donald Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969). Twice previously (in 1962 and 1969), Court had failed to win the coveted Grand Slam, falling both times at Wimbledon.

The powerful Australian was the most dominating player in the 60s, winning 13 Grand Slam tournaments.
Then she decided to retire after Wimbledon in 1966. But after getting married in 1967, she changed her mind and returned to tennis in 1968. Her goal: to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam. In 1969, she captured 3 majors, but lost to Ann Jones in Wimbledon semifinals.

In 1970, she had already won the Australian and French Championships when she met Billie Jean King in the Wimbledon final. This match is still considered as one of the greatest played on Center Court.
Court prevailed 14-12 11-9. 46 games, a record for the final, the tie-breaker not yet in use. But the result might have totally different: King broke Court’s serve 4 times in the first set, she served for the second set at 5-4, 7-6, and 8-7, and saved four match points. It would be the third and last title for Margaret Court at Wimbledon.

She met doubles specialist Rosie Casals in the US Open final, cruising through the first set 6-2. Casals bounced back to take the second set 6-2, but Court overcame her nerves in the third and captured her fourth US Open title 6-2 2-6 6-1. She also won the women’s doubles and mixed doubles.

Rosie Casals:

We called Margaret ‘The Arm’. It was like her right arm was a mile long when you tried to pass her.

Court regards her U.S. Open win against Casals in 1970 as the best moment of her career.

I had won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments twice before but completing the full set in one year was very special. Maureen Connolly was the only player who had previously achieved the Slam in the women’s game. In those days the US Open was played at Forest Hills, an old-fashioned club that was very different to the massive Flushing Meadows. Winning that final against Rosie Casals was special.

Court retired again to have children but came back in 1972, and won 3 of 4 Slams in 1973.
She retired permanently in 1977 when she learned she was expecting the last of her four children.

Margaret Court won 62 Grand Slam championships, more than any other woman, and in 1970 became the second woman (after Maureen Connolly in 1953) to win the grand slam of tennis singles: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open titles in the same year. She is the only player to achieve the Grand Slam in mixed doubles as well as singles, winning the four events with fellow Australian Kenneth Fletcher in 1963.
She’s also the only person to have won all 12 Grand Slam events (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) at least twice.

Margaret Court 24 Singles titles:
– Australian Open: 11 (1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973)
– French Open: 5 (1962, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1973)
-Wimbledon: 3 (1963, 1965, 1970)
– US Open: 5 (1962, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1973)

In January 2003, Tennis Australia renamed Melbourne Park’s Show Court One to the Margaret Court Arena. She was the recipient of the 2003 Australia Post Australian Legends Award, and featured on a special 50c stamp. In 2006 she was awarded the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) highest accolade, the Philippe Chatrier Award.

Apart from her wonderful on-court achievements, Court who found a ministry (the Margaret Court Ministries), is also known for her homophobia. She said in particular that Martina Navratilova and other lesbian and bisexual players were ruining the sport of tennis and setting a bad example for younger players.

More on this controversial champion.

1978 US Open

1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.

The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.

The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
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Martina Navratilova Wimbledon 1990

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

Zina Garrison was now facing a woman on a mission. Navratilova had played almost perfect tennis for two weeks. She had lost just twenty-four games in six matches and hadn’t come close to losing a set. Off the court, she had been hyper almost the entire two weeks, but whenever she stepped on court, she was ready. Now, with one match to go, the nearness of it all hit her.

On Friday night she sat with Billie Jean King and Craig Kardon at her kitchen table to talk about their game plan for the final. This had become a ritual. Now King changed the ritual.

“You make the game plan,” she said. “Get out your journal and tell me what you need to do.”

Navratilova pulled out her journal and began going through it frantically. She finally boiled it down to four pages of notes.
“Not good enough,” King said. “I want one page. I want your mind clear.” Navratilova was becoming hysterical. She looked at King and Kardon. “This is the most important match I’ve ever played in my life,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be this close again. Do you think I’ll be able to play? Will I be able to hit the ball at all?”
King nodded. “You’ll play well,” she said. “You’ve never been prepared in your life.”

Navratilova calmed down. She got her notes down to one page: “Stay in the present,” she wrote.

“I had to keep my mind off winning,” she said. “Winning was the future. I had to be in the present. Think about that point and that point only.”

She also knew she had to attack, especially off Garrison’s weak second serve. Get on top of her, don’t give her the chance to come in. All tournament she had intentionally not thought about playing Graf in the final, in case that very thing happened. Now, she was thinking only about Garrison. Navratilova was 27-1 against Garrison, lifetime. She knew she was ready to play. That night, for the first time in two weeks. She slept soundly.

At 2pm precisely, Garrison and Navratilova walked on court for the final. Navratilova had walked on to Centre Court for the final. Navratilova had walked on to Centre Court for the Wimbledon final eleven times; now she was trying to walk off it with a major piecey of history. Garrison had no thoughts of history or, for that matter, of the match as she walked out. She thought, instead, of her mother.

“My mother never would have believed it,” she said later. “She just wouldn’t have believed it,” she said later. “She just wouldn’t have believed it was me going out there to play the Wimbledon final. She would have been impossible to talk to.”

Thinking about her mother, Garrison could feel tears welling up but forced herself to focus on tennis. She started well, holding serve, then having beak points in the second game. But Navratilova held and, following her game plan perfectly, moved into a zone that was untouchable. She was on top of the net all day, never missing a volley. Her serve was almost flawless, her returns low and at Garrison’s feet. In many ways it was a repeat of all their matches of the past. The styles were similar. One player just played it better.

It ended on one last Navratilova backhand. Overwhelmed, drained and exhausted, Navratilova fell to her knees. She raced up through the stands to her entourage, kissing Kardon, hugging King and hugging Nelson. Once she would have been afraid to hug Nelson in public; now she did it without hesitation.

Nine times she had been handed the plate by the Duchess of kent, but this time the duchess gave her a kiss before handing it over. Navratilova cried as she held it above her head.
The biggest cheer was reserved for Garrison. Navratilova had won; Garrison had inspired. She had overcome so much to get there that losing the final couldn’t diminish what she had achieved.

That night, both women celebrated. Garrison, her entourage, and about twenty friends went to a London restaurant and toasted what they had accomplished. Navratilova threw a party at her house and got drunk.

“Two whiskey sours did it,” she said. “I hadn’t had a drink other than a glass of wine with dinner or a sip of beer for years. I just sat in the corner and laughed.”

The joy at the two parties was genuine. Both women deserved to eat, to drink, to be merry. To laugh. And to cry.