Billie Jean King, 35 years old and bearing the scars of surgery on both knees and her left heel, had just beaten Californian Linda Siegel, 6-1, 6-3, to reach the third round of the women's singles at Wimbledon, a Wimbledon she didn't think she would be physically ready to play.

"Do you realize that Linda Siegel was born in June, 1961, two weeks before you played here for the first time?" she was asked. "Looking back, which of your lives as a tennis player do you think you're in now?"

"I don't know, I just hope it's not the ninth," she said. She said she feels like a kid again. "I'm one of the lucky ones. Somebody told me today that I have another record: I've played more matches than anybody else at Wimbledon. I think that's great. I love it. It's fun."

It was actually on Tuesday when she beat South African Yvonne Vermaak, 6-4, 6-1, that King broke the record for the most singles matches any individual has played at Wimbledon. It was her 91st. Arthur Wentworth Gore played 90 in 36 appearances between 1888 and 1927.

King has won 194 matches in singles and doubles in her 19 years at Wimbledon, more than any other player but she is still pursuing the record for career titles.

She currently shares that with Elizabeth Ryan, a grand old lady of 87 who never won the singles, but took 12 women's doubles and seven mixed titles between 1914 and 1934.King also has won 19 Wimbledon crowns: six singles, nine doubles, four mixed.

This year, she and Martina Navratilova are seeded No. 1 in the women's doubles, as they were last year, when they were upset in the quarterfinals by Sue Barker and Mona Guerrant. King is an outsider in the mixed, in tandem with a 17-year-old junior from Tennessee named Ben Testerman.


That was an afterthought. She didn't originally enter, and was added to the draw by special action of the All England Club two weeks ago, well after entries had officially closed. She established herself as a contender by whipping Navratilova, 6-1, 6-2, at a windblown tuneup tournament in Chichester, England. Even so, she says her unexpected No. 7 seeding is "ridiculously high."

"I decided to try it because I was healthy. My foot wasn't hurting. The surgery on my foot (a "triple-threat" operation to remove a vestigial bone, a bone spur and repair the plantar fascia, a gristly area underneath the arch) was Dec. 22. I just didn't think I'd be ready for Wimbledon this year."

She had talked to Arthur Ashe, also 35, who took a year to come back from heel surgery. While most observers thought he would never be a force in singles a gain he worked his way back up from No 256 in the world rankings, where he had slipped during his enforced idleness, to his current No. 8.

"i feel better this year than I have since 1975. So I'm older than I was last year, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm 1,000 percent better," she said.

"i do think eventually that you become a step slower, or your motivation changes, and you just have to be alert to where you're at and keep track.

"It's pretty measurable. If the ball goes down the line, a foot from the sideline, and you can't get to it . . . and you remember that you used to get to it . . . I think that's the day you better bag it.