Margaret Smith Court of Albury, New South Wales and Perth, Western Australia—or whatever city or resort the tennis caravan is camped in any week—has such spectacular reach that zipping a shot past her or lobbing over her is exasperatingly difficult. Even though she is a strapping 5'9", she moves quickly and needs the minimum number of strides to cover the maximum amount of ground. Awed opponents have nicknamed her The Arm. This year she has played in six tournaments, won them all and put the arm on some $35,000.
Court began in January by beating Evonne Goolagong in both the finals of the Australian Open and the New South Wales Open. She came to the U.S. for her second ride on the lucrative Virginia Slims circuit and defeated fellow Aussie Kerry Melville in San Francisco, Nancy Richey Gunter in Los Angeles and Melville again in Bethesda, Md. Two weeks ago in the wind and cold in Miami she beat Melville once again. Court now has won 58 singles matches and 12 tournaments in a row, and there reportedly is a movement afoot among the other women to pay her fare to the Group A men's tour so she can play Rod Laver and Stan Smith. The ticket would be one-way.
Whipping Melvilles, Goolagongs and Gunters week after week is impressive, but where was Billie Jean King, who won $117,000 in 1971 and $119,000 in 1972? Way down there on the 19th rung of the Virginia Slims prize-money ladder, that's where, with a measly $1,375 beside her name. After the rich tournament at Boca Raton, Fla. last October (won by then-amateur Chris Evert), King took her "first vacation in seven years." When she started practicing again, perhaps she overdid it. She suffered an inflammation of a tendon in her right wrist and—except for one doubles match—had to miss the first three Virginia Slims events. She returned to action in Miami and lost in the second round to Karen Krantzcke.
"I had three match points and I lost," she said. "I blew it. I had a nice little high backhand volley, which is my bread-and-butter shot, and just plinked it into the bottom of the net."
"Some people come back from a layoff fresh and revived," says Court, "but Billie Jean was a bit patchy. I guess it's going to be a while." She did not sound at all sad about it.
And how about King on Court? "I've watched her a little," Billie Jean says without enthusiasm. "I guess everyone thinks she's playing great. I dunno—Margaret to me just plays the same all the time. She's just a good, solid, tough player because of her height."
The fact is that the two of them have been staging classic battles ever since they first met at Wimbledon in 1962. Court—Margaret Smith then and at 20 the No. 1 woman in the world—was the top seed. Billie Jean Moffitt, an 18-year-old fussbudget from Long Beach, Calif., upset her in three sets in the opening round. But Court beat King in the Wimbledon final the next year, smashed her all through 1964 and beat her in the Forest Hills final in 1965. King beat Court in the Wimbledon semis in 1966, after which Court retired for almost two years. Their greatest battle was the 1970 final at Wimbledon, where Court, on her way to a Grand Slam, won a 2½-hour marathon 14-12, 11-9.
For various reasons, including having a baby last March, Court did not join Virginia Slims until late last year. She and King met in four finals and each won two, but King beat her in the Forest Hills semis 6-4, 6-4. Now Court practically owns the tour that King fought so hard to build and that used to be her nearly exclusive property.
Their battles this year on the winter and summer Slims circuits should continue the entertaining tradition, especially after King gets herself back into top condition, which she estimates will be in the middle of March at Richmond, Va. when the real struggle for female supremacy will begin.
Last week, with a break in the schedule, Court went down to rest and practice at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. King, before going to the Shipyard Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C. to practice and work on her forthcoming book, played in and won a little exhibition tournament in New York City to benefit the National Women's Political Caucus. The next day, in a Manhattan office building, she talked about getting back into the tour fight.
"When I get in shape I feel I should dominate," she said, "but right now Margaret is tournament-tough. I feel like I can be No. 1, but I know the effort involved. That's one of the advantages Margaret and I have: at our age we know exactly what effort is involved to be on top. We've been there. Whether I'm willing to go through the effort to do it is something else."
Then she paused for just an instant, perhaps mentally picturing the crown and racket-shaped scepter going to Margaret. But the scene inside her head was obviously distasteful and she suddenly jerked the throne away just as her rival was sitting down.
"I am. I'm willing to go through it again. I'll start running. I'll do it. That's it. Finish."
Literally wearing rose-tinted glasses and carrying a copy of the new cartoon book Wonder Woman, she hurried off to her hotel to pack.
Court shows the power of her overhead game.
King, last year's champion, wins an exhibition match for the Women's Political Caucus.