The $250,000 Colgate Series Championship, which begins, at 1 p.m. today at Capital Centre, is at once the last roundup of 1979 in women's tennis and the first shoot-out of 1980: an opportunity to draw first in a new, year-long game of queen of the hill.
The participants qualified for a crack at the first prizes of $75,000 in singles and $30,000 in doubles by leading the point standings for the 1979 Colgate Series, a circuit of 33 tournaments on four continents. They are the top eight singles players and top four doubles teams of the last year, assembled for a prestigious final playoff, a kind of Super Bowl of women's tennis.
But in tennis, unlike football, the season never ends. The first tournament of the new year begins the same day the "Super Bowl" finishes. Since all the singles players here are coming off Christmas breaks from competition, having bypassed the now sadly weak Australian open, their thinking, training and match preparation all have been geared toward the 1980 season.
Professional sports tends to be a "what have you done lately?" business, so they are thinking of the future, not the past. They consider 1979 as ancient history, 1980 as the new challenge at hand.
"This tournament is tough because it's supposed to be the final of last year, but in a sense it's the first tournament of this year in terms of confidence and getting a head start," said Chris Evert Lloyd, who has won the Series Championship the past two years, when it was played in November in palm Springs, Calif.
"I think it's important to get a good start, sort of an early jump on the season. That's why I have arranged my schedule to play a lot of tournaments at the beginning of the year. I think how I do the next four or five weeks will reflect on how I'm going to do next summer, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open."
Evert Lloyd plays Australian Dianne Fromholtz in the first match of tonight's evening session, beginning at 7 p.m. U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin, just turned 17, will play Aussie Wendy Turnbill in the second singles, followed by Wimbledon champions Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova against Ilana Kloss and Bettyann Stuart in doubles.
The tournaments begins at 1 p.m., with two singles matches: Evonne Goolagong vs. Regina Marsikova, followed by Navratilova against Kerry Reid.
The singles portion of the tournament is played in a complicated, hybrid format: part round-robin, part double-elimination, part regular "knock-out" event.
Essentially, the players who win their first two matches proceed directly to the semifinals, where they are paired against players who compiled 2-1 records in the preliminary segment of the tournament. The semifinal winners then face off for the championshiop, whether they have one defeat or none. A second loss automatically elimiates a player from contention for the semifinals.
Since there are no weak players and no easy early rounds, it is a demanding format for the players. They must come in playing at least up to "quarterfinal form."
"You like to feel that you can build up during a tournament, not have to play your best the first day to win, but you can't think that way this week," said Evert Lloyd, who lost to Fromholtz on the opening day of this tournament two years ago but then came back to win it. "You have to try to play your best right from the start."
Evert Lloyd has been working hard for the last month, trying to put behind her a 1979 that was personally joyous -- she married British Davis Cup player John Lloyd last April 17 -- but professionally disappointing.
She finished the year with a record of 89-13 and won only one major tournament: the French Open. It was the first time since 1973 that she lost more than seven matches in a year and did not rank as the No. 1 woman player in the world.
She spent the first half of December in Palm Springs with her husband, where they both trained with former U.S. Davis Cup captain Dennis Ralston, now John Lloyd's coach.
"Dennis included me in the drills and two-in-one workouts, and in the afternoons we'd play sets, so I really felt that I was in great shape in the middle of December," said Evert Lloyd, who has not played a match in competition since Nov. 25. "Then we went home (to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) for Christmas, and I just played about two hours a day from then on.
"Physically, I feel prepared. In previous years I've always taken two or three weeks off in December and just rested, but this year I didn't take any time off at all. I felt that last year I had a lot of time off. I hadd an eightmonth honeymoon, as they say," she continued, grinning.
"i never felt that I worked 100 percent, like I should have . . . I had made up my mind that my marriage was my first priority, and tennis was my second, so it was very easy for me to accept the consequences. But I certainly felt disappointed . . . . My marriage is still the most important thing, but I'm more serious, more intense about tennis again. I don't think I need to be No. 1, as far as my happiness to concerned but I want to be.
"I feel good. I'm very eager. I think the only problem I could have is the mental toughness, because whenever I don't play a tournament for five or six weeks it's tough for me to jump right into it. My past record shows that I've never really done that great in a tournament after I've had that type of layoff. So, we'll just see."
If Evert Lloyd can relight her old competitive fires, this could be a superb tournament. Her chief competition should come from Navratilova, the 1978-79 Wimbledon champion and No. 1 player of 1979; Austin, who was 4-0 against Navratilova and 2-0 against Evert Lloyd the last three months of the year; and Goolagong, who played her best tennis of last year in the fall before coming down with a persistent case of the flu that forced her to withdraw from three tournaments.
"It seemed to be shaping up as Tracy and me as the main rivalry in 1980, but if Chris comes back like she has been promising, it might be a three-way rivalry," said Navratilova, who has been practicing eagerly for the new season, too.
"I don't know if Evonne wants to keep playing or to have another baby and quit, but she beat Tracy twice in the fall and has been playing some really good tennis. If she stays healthy, and wants it badly enough, she could be right up there again. It could be a four-way rivalry."
Stay tuned. The end of 1979, after all, is just the beginning of 1980.
The 1979 records of the eight singles players in the Colgate Series Championship:
CHRIS EVERT LLOYD -- Singles record, 89-13, Prize money, $528,457. Won eight of 21 tournaments, Including French Open and U.S. Clay Courts. Runner-up, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA -- Singles record, 93-12. Prize money, $691,198. Won 12 of 24 tournaments, including Wimbledon and Avon Championships. Semifinalist, U.S. Open.
TRACY AUSTIN -- Single record, 77-13. Prize money, $498,749. Won seven of 21 tournaments, including Italian Open and U.S. Open. runner-up, Avon Championship. Semifinalist, Wimbledon.
WENDY TURNBULL -- Singles record, 60-25. Prize money, $291,945. Won two of 28 tournaments. Also led Colgate Series in doubles. Runner-up, French Open.
KERRY REID -- Singles record, 50-23. Prize money, $135,890. Won one of 24 tournaments.
Dianne FROMHOLTZ -- Singles record, 62-27. Prize money, $252,745. Won one of 26 tournaments. Semifinalist, French Open and Avon Championship.
REGINA MARISKOVA -- Singles record, 45-23. Prize Money, $95,815. Won one of 23 tournaments. Semifinalists, French Open.