"Since I started winning again everyone's all over me.They want interviews. They say, 'Oh, you're wonderful.' I just sit back and look at them and smile and say, 'Fine.' So many of them wrote me off at Wimbledon. They really did. The press and a lot of players didn't think I could do it, I just want to do it for myself."
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King has decided that she doesn't like the word "comeback," which follows her everywhere these days as she climbs back toward the only position she has ever wanted in tennis: No. 1.
"'Comeback.' That sounds so unimaginative," she said over the phone. "A guy in Oakland last week wrote that I'm 'the recycled Billie Jean King.' I like that much better. That's exactly how I feel - like a beer can that was discarded but has come back good as new."
For those who haven't faithfully read the small type on the "Scoreboard" page recently, BJK has won 20 of her last 21 matches, three of four tournaments, and beat Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade last week in the most thrilling match of a 7-0 U.S. rout of Great Britain in the Wightman Cup. As she approaches her 34th birthday next week, she confidently sees herself as the one and future queen of her sport.
King wom consecutive tournaments in Phoenix, Sao Paulo and San Juan, but these were downplayed because her chief rivals, U.S. Open champion Chris Evert and Wade, did not play. King did beat Martina Navratilova, Betty Stove and Francoise Durr twice each, plus Rosemary Casals and Wendy Turnbull.
This late-season surge vaulted King into third place in the final standings for the Colgate International Series and the women's Grand Prix and landed her a berth in the Colgate finals at Palm Springs. There she beat Kerry Reid, Stove and Turnbull to win her round-robin group and qualify for the title match, in which Evert mowed her down, 6-2, 6-2, on national TV.
"I was really disappointed with that because physically and mentally I was playing well enough to beat Chris, or at least give her a match," said BJK, who won only 11 games from Evert in four tournament meetings this year, including the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
"Losing is one thing, but I didn't even play her right. It was just awful. I can't believe how bad I was."
That embarrassment aside, King is pleased with the progress of her recycling project, and not only because she pocketed $132,000 in winnings and International Series bonuses in a four-week period. She has regained nearly full strength in her right knee, which was operated on a year ago this week, and has largely eliminated the lapses in concentration that plagued her earlier this year.
"I'm well enough to win now. I just know it. I'm okay," she said. "Noth physically and psychologically, I'm getting there. I'm 100 per cent better than at Wimbledon. Except for the Evert match, I've been playing tough. I'm on schedule.
"I didn't think I was every going to come around, but in Atlanta in September I lost a match to Dianne Fromholtz that I shouldn't have, and that did it. I told myself that was the last time I was going to lose for those reasons: letting up, not concentrating, not giving 110 per cent in the tough situations." She has lost only one match since.
King was ranked No. 1 when she retired from tournament singles in July, 1975, after winning her sixth Wimbledon title. She played two tournaments last fall, losing to Fromholtz in the quarterfinals at Phoenix and in the first round at Palm Springs, and then underwent [WORD ILLEGIBLE] third knee operation, to remove tissue that had grown abnormally under her right kneecap. (She had previously had surgery on the left knee in 1968 and the right in 1970.)
She surprisingly reached the final of her first serious tournament after the operation, the Family Circle Cup last April, but won only one game against Evert in the final. She played impressively in helping the U.S. win the Federation Cup in June and the New York Apples defend the World Team Tennis championship in August, but struggled at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills, when the spotlight was on her.
In September she said she would play six straight weeks and then "reevaluate my progress," to determine whether, she was still willing to pay the price in pain and hard work that being at the top demands.
Now she knows that she wants it, and thinks she can win a seventh singles title at Wimbledon.
"I've worked ton hard to think any other way," she said. "I think I can be No. 1 again My game, overall, is better than it ever was because I've had a chance to work systematically on my serve and forehand."
It was the dream of again dominating the sport she did so much to popularize that sustained King through her sometimes painful rehabilitation - through long days of lifting weights, riding a stationary bike and doing exercises to rebuild her knee.
"I went through the whole trip. I read about tennis, watched it on TV, slept, ate and lived it. It was rediscovery," she said, recalling an intensive five-week "training camp" at Montreal last winter. "It was a totally involved feeling - studying tennis, getting back into shape, learning to withstand pain and persevere again."
Physically, she still has to bear down daily, truly training instead of just practicing long hours as she used to do. She does regular warmup, stretching and isometic exercises, takes ultrasound treatments, packs her knees in ice for 20 minutes after practice and matches and before bed. She and an orthopedic specialist have worked out "maintenance program."
"Everybody says I'm like an 18-year-old again. I'm working at it all the time. It's a 24-hour-a-day commitment," she said. But the long, arduous, sometimes frustrating process has finally borne recycled fruit. BJK was elated with her victory over Wade, especially because she moved so well. Mobility is the cornerstone of her aggressive all-court game.
"She gave mee drop shots that would have been winners before, and I was on them, I ran down a couple of lobs over me and hit winners off them. I started to play better percentage tennis," she said. "I still make some mental booboos, but not as many. It helps your confidence when you know in your gut that you can run everything down.
"I couldn't believe how nervous I got on three or four points.I started to fail apart and then collected myself because I understood what was happening. I don't think I've gotten nervous enough the last few years. That means I've got all the adrenalin going that's when I win.
"I'm getting much stronger emotionally," she added, "and I've just got to keep playing a lot of tournaments to get toughened up."
King is scheduled to play a tournament in Japan and one in London next month. She plans to play eight or nine of the 11 tournaments on the Virginia Slims circuit, but not the opener in Washington, Jan. 2-8.
She is disappointed that Evert has decided to take a vacation and skip the '78 Slims tour, not only because it will place more of a promotional burden on her, but because she would like the opportunity to test herself once more against the best. Evonne Goolagon is returning after the birth of her daughter, Wade and Navratilova are playing well and, with Evert, the Slims could have had its strongest field ever.
"It's a bit of a letdown, but Chris is tired and I don't blame her for taking a rest," said King. "She's had it. She just doesn't want to be out there. But I think she'll play a couple of the late Slims tournaments, and Team Tennis and all the majors. I hope so."