Chris Evert Lloyd moved within one match of an unprecedented fifth consecutive U.S. Open singles title today, reaching the final with a disappointingly one-sided victory over old rival Billie Jean King, who was reduced to nearly total ineffectiveness by a pinched nerve in her neck.
Evert was unaware of King's freak injury -- reportedly inflicted when a good friend greeted her with a playful bear hug Thursday evening -- until after her embarrassingly simple 6-1, 6-0 victory in the stadium of the National Tennis Center. But she sensed that there was something wrong with her opponent before the match.
It was a disappointing match for me because she wasn't the old Billie Jean," Evert said. "She wasn't hyper. In the dressing room she was relaxed, and that was odd for her . . . . She was just very calm.
"She was thinking a lot. Usually she's moving around, stretching, jumping, but she wasn't doing that today," said Evert, who will play the winner of Saturday's other semifinal between Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova and 16-year-old Californian Tracy Austin for the $39,000 top prize Sunday.
"I felt a little sorry for her, I guess because I've been in that position where I've played and nothing has worked. She just had a bad day. That's not the way Billie Jean can play. I mean, she really can play tennis and this match was no indication of the type of player she is."
King, 35 and determined to win a major title again after three knee operations and surgery on her heel last December, had not lost a set in beating Zenda Liess, Chris O'Neil, Stacy Margolin, Kathy May Teacher and Virginia Wade to reach the semifinals for the seventh time -- the first since 1974, when she beat 16-year-old Chris Evert in the semifinals and won her fourth U.S. Open.
She had been in a buoyant mood, convinced that she was now physically ready to challenge Evert, who had beaten her in all seven of their meetings since Wimbledon in 1975, the year King won her sixth singles title there.
Friends say King was her usual self, eager and confident, at dinner Thursday evening. But one of her dining companions -- Dick Butera, who owned the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis when King was their coach and star player and is married to King's good friend and sometimes doubles partner Julie Anthony -- gave her a hug.
"Something popped in the back of my neck," King confided later to another friend.
Today she played dreadfully, moving sluggishly and playing ridiculous, low percentage shots -- backhand drop shot returns of serve and the like. She served poorly and was terribly erratic, particularly on the forehand.
After holding her serve at 15 in the first game and having a break point on Evert's serve at 30-40 in the second game, King lost 20 of the next 22 points. In fact, she won only a paltry 12 points in the rest of the 51-minute massacre in the mid-day sun.
From 40-15 in the third game, King double-faulted twice, was passed by one of Evert's scathing backhands, and netted a foolish forehand volley from four feet inside the baseline. After that, as Everet put it so succinctly, "She just completely fell apart."
During the match -- which was over before many ticket-holders in the crowd of 16,948 even arrived -- King became increasingly grim-faced, disgusted and finally indifferent. Her curious selection of cop-out shots and failure even to chase Evert's perfect drop shots in the second set made Evert start to hink, "Maybe she is injured."
Directly after the match, King went for treatment from Dr. John Marshall, the surgeon who operated on her heel last year and has supervised her arduous, almost manic conditioning program.
He said she had a pinched nerve, and put her in a neck brace until the late afternoon doubles match in which Wimbledon champions King and Navratilova ironically defeated Sherry Acker and Anthony, Butera's wife, 6-2, 7-5. They will play Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull for the title, which would be King's sixth in women's doubles.
Evert, 24, played a good match, ripping her ground strokes hard and deep, which is sometimes difficult to do against an opponent who is putting up virtually no resistance. But she wishes she had gotten a sterner test going into the final.
Certainly this was a sad exit for the proud King, and Evert said she felt sympathy for her foe today.
"I felt for her because we've both been in the same position, as far as being champions," Evert said.
"I went out there expecting a really tough match, mentally as well as physically, because I think Billie Jean and I are both mentally very strong. Maybe in different ways, but mentally we both usually dominate our opponents. I was expecting that today, and I didn't get it."
Instead, King got a pain in her neck.