The two women whose life stories these books tell are intelligent, articulate, good-humored, attractive -- and singularly consequential in the history of American sport, not to mention women's tennis. All of which is fine and dandy, and none of which does either of their books the slightest bit of good. "Billie Jean" and "Chrissie" are transparently silly books, old-fashioned as-told-to sports autobiographies masquerading as candid locker-room confessions.
The genre dates back to before World War I and was probably inaugurated by Christy Mathewson, one of the few characters in American sport who deserves to be called immortal. With the ghostly assistance of a journalist, promoter and free-swinging operator named Jack Wheeler, Mathewson capitalized on his fame by churning out books that offered advice to actual and arrested adolescents on pitching and living, not necessarily in that order. The purpose of the books was twofold: to cash in on the coast-to-coast reverence with which Mathewson was regarded, and to intensify that reverence by portraying him as a hero among men and an all-around good fellow.
Thus it has been ever since. The language of the sports autobiography has changed to fit the times, as has the variety of information it imparts, but its fundamental nature remains the same. In the case of "Billie Jean," the obvious purpose of the book is to restore its author to the widespread popularity she enjoyed before the disclosure of her lesbian love affair with Marilyn Barnett -- while simultaneously, of course, attempting to cash in on prurient curiosity about that affair. The trouble is that, on the first count at least, the effort backfires thunderously. "Billie Jean" is so blatantly self-serving that it can only win its author more enemies than friends.
From first page to last, "Billie Jean" is an exercise in special pleading. Its author wants us to believe that the Barnett affair was an "insignificant part of my life"; she asserts that "all along, blacks seem to have identified with me more than most whites have"; she claims, presumably with a straight face, that "money has never meant that much to me." Her ego is quite simply stupendous: She reports that "I am, to many people, the personification of women's tennis," and that in the months before her famous match against Bobby Riggs, "the whole world was interested in me." Her intentions notwithstanding, she ends up portraying herself as pushy, self-absorbed and self-deluded, which leaves at least one wavering admirer wondering which in fact is the real Billie Jean King: the egomaniac of this book or the courageous, determined woman who has done so much for her game and her sex?
As for Chris Evert Lloyd, her chief aim in putting together "Chrissie" seems to be to persuade us that she is a person of considerably greater passions than her reputation as "The Ice Maiden" would suggest, and that there also lurks beneath her fac,ade of composure a deep reservoir of insecurity. These are simply variations, only intermittently interesting ones, on the old gambit of wrapping the famous athlete in a mantle of mere humanity; Evert Lloyd wants us to believe that she is just a regular gal.
Which, of course, she transparently is not. Her book, like King's, leaves no doubt that she is obsessed with "being No. 1" and that the single-mindedness of this obsession is what got her there. Blessed with quite limited athletic skills, as she is quick to admit, Evert Lloyd parlayed her father's skillful instruction and her own fierce determination into a five-year string as the world's top-ranked female player; there is nothing "regular" about that.
Nor is there anything especially regular about her romantic life, which first became public property with her engagement to Jimmy Connors, then moved through attachments to Jack Ford and Burt Reynolds, and now finds her happily married to John Lloyd, a British player who has had the good grace (and, on the record, good sense) to subordinate his own career to hers. In her accounts of these entanglements Evert Lloyd's modesty quickly asserts itself, so readers hoping to learn their precise nature will be disappointed. Others will merely be bored.
Certainly it should be noted, as a footnote for readers who follow the shifting frontiers of public taste, that both Evert Lloyd and King discuss the subject of menstruation in some detail. Presumably this information is imparted courtesy of the New Candor, the religious movement of which Phil Donahue is high priest; it is not, however, information that many readers are likely to receive with much enthusiasm.