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.