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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Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy

The achievements of Arthur Robert Ashe – known as ‘Bones’ when he was a skinny boy and as ‘The Shadow’ when he became a skinny celebrity – are remarkable not least because of the social and racial context in which he achieved them. His blood lines were mixed but essentially he was a black who came close to dominating a white world. In that complicated and controversial area Ashe was a pioneer of enduring influence: as he was in the organization of professionals as a corporate force, as a central figure in the game’s administrative evolution, and as a driving force behind revisions of the rules of play. In addition to all that he found time for a diversity of business ventures and social and charitable work. Like a stone cast into a pond, Ashe made a splash that sent ripples – often, waves – in every direction. Consequently his historic status was more important than his playing record suggests, distinguished though that was.

Descended from West African slaves, Ashe was brought up in a legally segregated community (a parallel of sorts with the South African politics into which he later dipped his toes) and learned to live with the racial distinctions. His mothe was frail and died when he was six years old. So Ashe and his brother Johnny were mainly brought up by his father, who policed and othewise tended a ‘black’ public park in which Ashe played his first tennis. The local tennis clubs and tournalents were no-go areas for anyone of Ashe’s pigmentation. His development had two main causes, other than his ability and character. One was the proximity of a black physician and tennis coach, Dr Walter Johnson, from Lynchburg. Ashe first went there when he was 10. Johnson had much to do with the grooming of the first black American to achieve international renown in tennis: Althea Gibson, who won the Wimbledon, United States and French championships in the 1950s.
Now, he did the same for Ashe, though Johnson’s son Bobby undertook most of the actual coaching. Dr Johnson and Ashe’s father also taught the teenager to ride the punches of racial prejudice and injustice and acquire the disciplined composure, the outward serenity, the dignity, with which he conducted himself. It must have helped, too, that the Ashe brothers joined their father on fishing and deer-hunting expeditions that taught them to wait patiently, with brains in gear, and endure frustration. The other main cause for Ashe’s advance was his liking and aptitude for study. He went to high school at St Louis and moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was plunged into the seaching fires of collegiate coaching and competition.

In those days tennis had yet to gain acceptance as a full-time competitive sport and the more talented Americans tended to complete their college commitments before joining the world tour and finding out just how good they were. Ashe was 22 years old, and already an established Davis Cup player with some heartening results behind him, when he went to Australia for the 1965-66 season and consolidated a growing reputation: first in the state tournaments and then in the Australian championships. He was runner-up to Roy Emerson that year and the next, but the wreckage his awesome serving left in its wake included Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe. Ashe had arrived. He was ready to play a starring role. It turned out to be both historic and bizarre.

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Wimbledon champion Ann Jones

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

Adrianne Shirley Jones, an exemplary strategist and tactician whose tennis always made sense, had no big shot and was too down-to-earth to present an overtly striking personality. Consequently, as Billie Jean King asserted, Jones was the most underrated woman player of the 1960s – except by those who had to play her or had the expertise to fully appreciate what she was doing. The record speaks for itself. Up to a point, anyway. The Wightman Cup figures obscure the fact that, of all the women who represented Britain most often in the annual contest with the United Stats, Jones had much the best win-loss record in singles and was matched only by Christine Truman in doubles. She went to the top of the heap in Britain at a time when domestic competition was uncommonly distinguished: because her career overlapped those of Mortimer and Truman, Shirley Blommer, and Virginia Wade, all of whom won Grand Slam singes championships.

Tennis was the second sport in which Jones achieved worldwide distinction. Her parents were international table tennis playes and it was in this game that Jones, like Fred Perry before her, first made headlines. She played for the senior England team at the age of 15 (no other girl has achieved so much so soon) and later contested five world championship finals: one in singles and four in doubles. In 1957 Jones was runner-up in all three events. Table tennis sharpened her reactions, taught her the value of spin, and made her a tough competitor who could instantly identify the points that most mattered. The negative side of it was her tendency to lose, however narrowly, the big finals. That planted a seed of self-doubt often evident in her tennis. True, she won the first Grand Slam singles final she reached, in Paris in 1961. But after that Jones repeatedly had cause to suspect that she would usually be found wanting during the last sprint to the tape.

She played her first tennis tournament in 1952, at the age of 13, basically as a summer relaxation, and in the following year competed for the first time in the british junior championships on the shale courts at Wimbledon. In those early years she was simply playing a form of table tennis adapted to a tennis court. But the outdoor game began to assume more importance when she won the British junior title two years running, in 1954 and 1955. On her way to that second title she was reduced to tears by an opponent who lobbed everything. Jones was so distracted that she wanted to quit but was talked into battling on. The irony is that, years later, the soporific precision of her lightweight tennis was to have a similarly maddening effect on a legion of opponents who played well, worked themselves into the ground, and emerged with headaches and maybe one or two games.

In 1956 Jones competed in the Wimbledon championships for the first time. She was still dividing her year between table tennis in winter and tennis in summer, but the outdoor game was no longer merely a recreation. She was beginning to grow away from table tennis, partly because international tennis provided a far more comfortable life style. And in 1958, unseeded, she beat Maria Bueno to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time. Demonstrably, she was good enough to close the book on a gratifying table tennis career and travel the world more or less full-time as a tennis player, in the last decade of ‘shamateurism’.

In 1961 there was evidence of her maturing versatility when she won the French singles championship on slow clay and advanced to the United States final on the rather bizarre grass courts of Forest Hills. Then came the ‘mixed’ summerof 1962 in which she reached her first Wimbledon final, in the company of Dennis Ralston and promptly married an old friend, Pip Jones. This gave her off-court life stability and a new set of priorities: and as a player she was benefiting from the friendship and advice of the great Maureen Connolly. But the ultimate break-through was still some way ahead and from 1964 onwards Jones had to deal with nagging problems that arose from a slipped disc and affected her neck and the shoulder of her racket arm. It may or may not be relevant that although table tennis had in many ways been an admirable preparation for her tennis career, Jones had almost reached physical maturity by the time her body and her technique had to cope with the persistent stress of services, overheads and volleys.

Towards the end of 1966 Jones briefly considered retirement but Pip encouraged her to carry on: a specially designed programme of exercises did much to sort out the neck and shoulder trouble. At the age of 29 she acquired fresh momentum from the advent of open competition. Jones was not to know it at the time but this provided a basis for the finest tennis of her career. In April of 1968, the first month of the Open era, Jones (guaranted at least $25,000 a year for two years) was among four women to sign contracts with George MacCall‘s professional group. The others were Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Françoise Durr.

Durr was witty, charming, and smart – and delightfully Gallic. She gripped the racket with her forefinger pointed down the shaft, but her wildly unorthodox game was a joke that had to be taken seriously. When serving she waved her back leg in the air as if she did not know what to do with it. Her sliced backhand often took her down on one knee, with her bum almost touching the court. Virginia Wade suggested:

Playing with her is like being on a Saturday morning children’s show. I love to watch her hitting crazy winners with her mongrel set of strokes

But Wade rated Durr as an outstanding doubles player; and the record confirms that opinion.

Durr’s angled volleys were a prime feature of her game. Technically, her tennis was a smack in the eye for the purists. But the important thing was where she put the ball, not the way she did it. Her wits were sharp, her ball control sound. And she spiced the already piquant dish with sun-glasses, hair-ribbons, bightly busy dresses, shrieks and self-admonitory comments, and a habit of banging herself on the head with her racket. In short, Durr was a bundle of fun – and a far better played than she looked.

King and Casals were close friends. Durr enlivened the off-court hours of the Jones. But the four new professionals got on well together and also with the six men in the MacCall group, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Richard Gonzales, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Andres Gimeno. For Jones the match-player, the benefits of living and working in such distinguished company were exciting: not least the chance to practise with the men and learn from them. Most of all, she learned to play a more attacking game. That could never be the bedrock of her tennis but at least she could now use the serve-and-volley stuff more often and with more confidence. In any case she had reached a phase of her career in which the baseline style was no long, in itself, sufficiently gratifying. She was readier to take a few risks and go for winners.

It all came together at Wimbledon in 1969 when Jones became the first left-hander to win the women’s championship. In her last two matches she came back from a set down to beat Margaret Court and King in turn. The 10-12 6-3 6-2 win over Court demanded the finest tennis of her career and an outstanding feature was the persistence and confidence in which Jones attacked. That was her 14th consecutive Wimbledon. She had been runner-up in 1967 and had made six other advances to the semi-finals. Now she wom not merely one title, but two, sharing the mixed championship with Stolle. It was enough. Jones was a BBC commentator when she returned to Wimbledon in 1970. She has since combined that role with coaching the young, captaining British teams, refereeing, helping to run the women’s international circuit, and (most important of all) bringing up three children.

Jones had immense powers of concentration. She was shrewd and sound and stubbornly patient. She knew exactly what she could and could not do and, just as important, was remarkably cute in appraising her opponents and making the appropriate stategic and tactical adjustments in her own game. Jones never missed a trick. While respecting the odds and eschewing risk, she could usually come up with something special in critical rallies. Lacking raw power, she became adept at flawlessly controlled tactical manoeuvres incorporating a wealth of variations. Spin, a useful legacy from table tennis, was always a feature.
The forehand, looped o hit with sidespin, was her best shot. She was particularly effective in driving her opponents back with a looped forehand or a top-spun lob, thus opening up the court for the gently terminal nudge of a drop-shot. Her chipped backhand was secure but seldom a threat, though occasionally she indulged her sense of fun by taking the ball early and putting top-spin on a full-blooded drive. Mostly, her approach shots (like her services) were not penetrating enough to justify more than sporadic demonstrations of her sure touch on the volley.
Jones was, and remains, a witty and wise raconteuse with a refreshingly direct manner.