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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Yannick Noah, Roland Garros 1983

From Game, set and deadline by Rex Bellamy:

The men’s singles champion of France is a Frenchman – for the first time since 1946. Yannick Noah, aged 23, subdued Mats Wilander, last year’s winner, by 6-2 7-5 7-6 in two hours and 24 minutes here yesterday. We could only guess what was going on inside the inscrutable Wilander – a lad of 18 who was trying to resist not only Noah and most of the sell-out crowd of 17,000, but also the will of a nation.

Wilander’s gamee told us all we needed to know: he was far more erratic than he could afford to be. He could not keep enough rallies going, nor had the attacking resources to finish enough of them in his own favour.

This was a triumph not only for Noah and France and Africa (while playing professional football in France, Noah’s father married a Frenchwoman), but also for clay-court tennis. For almost a decade – what might be called the Borg era – this tournament has been dominated by baseliners specializing in top-spin. They were mostly two-fisted on the backhand and their aim was to wear down their opponents and induce indiscretions.

This was a joylessly negative way to play tennis. By contrast, Noah is a throwback to the days when good athletes with the spirit of adventure in them could win here: as long as they had sound ground strokes, a reasonably sure touch, and the sense to know when to attack. Tennis the Noah way is exciting.

Noah was born in France, brought up in Cameroun, which was formerly under French administration, but returned to France in 1973 after Arthur Ashe had spotted him during a goodwill tour of Africa. Noah sports a mop-headed, braided hair-style. What matters most is that there is 6ft4 in and almost 13st of him, all of it arranged to produce maximum spring and strength and reach, plus a quivering energy that never seems to be totally in repose.

Noah is rather like Jimmy Connors in the Tarzan act he puts on when an important point has been won. At times there is a wild look about him, not least when he is pacing restlessly about the back of the court between points like a tiger impatient for dinner.

What extraordinary scenes there were when Wilander hit the last shot of the match, a wayward service return. The crowd had been simmering with excitement in bright, sultry heat, voicing thunderous roars of approval or collectively shushing themselves with a noise like the sea creeping up a shingle beach. At the end they boiled over – most spectacularly, Noah’s father, who leapt from a high wall at one end of the court and fell on his bottom with a thud.

Françoise Durr, Roland Garros 1967

From Game, set and deadline by Rex Bellamy:

French tennis will long remember this sweltering Sunday afternoon. At 4.20 the crowded centre court of the Stade Roland Garros – its four vast banks ablaze with colour, like giant flower-beds – almost bust asunder with noise and movement. France was saluting its first women’s singles champion since Nelly Landry (French by marriage) in 1948 and its first French-born winner since Simone Mathieu in 1939.

The new national heroine is Françoise Durr, born at Oran, Algeria, on Christmas Day, 1942. Already she had dismissed Maria Bueno (Brazil), the United States champion. Today she beat Lesley Turner (Australia), the Italian champion, by 4-6 6-3 6-4 in an arduously close match that lasted for an hour and 35 minutes.

Miss Durr‘s triumph was a smack in the eyes for the purists, a vindication of all those who claim that character is more important than talent, and a sharp rebuttal of the silly old cliché that nice guys – or nice girls – finish last.

Miss Durr’s sunglasses and her pink hair-ribbon are distinctive but not elegant. The same applies to her grip and her strokes: especially the sliced backhand that often takes her down on one knee. What binds all the pecularities together and makes her such a bonny competitor on hard courts is her ball control, the result of painstaking hard work, and the unfailingly sharp wits that command her tactics. She knows where the ball needs to go for maximum effect: and she has the control to put it there.

The crowd’s collective heart was at one with Miss Durr’s. Even while rallies were in progress, there were shrieks of joy o gasps of horror. How she had to fight! At 6-4 and 2-all Miss Turner looked well on the way to regaining a title she had won twice before. In the third set, marred by the distraction of controversial line calls, she came within two points of leading 5-2. But Miss Durr caught her, then pressed an attack on Miss Turner’s backhand. This squeezed out a last, decisive error, at which Miss Durr flung her racket so high that it might have brained her on the way down.

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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Evonne Goolagong

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

Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.

Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.

Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.

Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon 1971

Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.

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