Billie Jean King, the matriarch of women's pro tennis as we know it, was bounding around her Georgetown hotel room yesterday morning, wide-eyed as usual behind her oversized glasses and obviously in a gleeful mood.
Always one to envision the future and see all its wild possibilities, BJK is decidedly upbeat about the prospects for the women's game as it moves into the '80s.
She sees the number of girls taking up tennis, in parks and playgrounds and clubs around the world, multiplying every year.
She sees the number of aspiring professional players -- born baseliners such as Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin, and athletic serve-and -volleyers such as Martina Navratilova and Evonne Goolagong -- growing proportionally, elevating the general standard of play and producing appealing new champions at the crest of the wave.
Understandably, she likes what she sees.
King championed the cause 10 years ago, when women's tennis seemed destined to become a frilly footnote to the burgeoning men's pro game. She did more than anyone else of her time to popularize it as a show-biz spectacle that could thrive on its own. Even without Bobby Riggs.
She was not a lone pioneer, of course. Behind her was Gladys Heldman, a shrewd and indefatigable businesswoman who orchestrated the women's breakaway from the men in 1970 and organized a separate tour for them. And there was Joe Cullman, board chairman of Philip Morris, who bankrolled the tour, identifying big Virginia Slims cigarette brand with it in the most innovative and successful sponsorship venture tennis has known.
But King was the personality that made it work, a tireless crusader who played and talked the fledgling tour into prominence and secured public acceptance. She carried it on her back when the total prize money for a tournament was $7,500.
"I would have to say Billie Jean really started it, started the progress in women's tennis," said Evert Lloyd, who this week collected a check for $118,100 as her bonus for leading the point standings in the 1979 Colgate Series of 33 tournaments, and is still in the running for the $75,000 first prize in the current $250,000 Series finale at Capital Centre.
"She has the leadership quality. She definitely has been a spokeswoman and she wasn't afraid to reach out and take a chance. She really believed in women's tennis at a time when it was risky. She took the risk and succeeded.
"I think the next step was probably Evonne and I, because we were new and young and feminine. I think we probably changed the image of women's tennis from masculine to feminine, and from there it really took off.
"But Billie Jean paved the way for me. She paved the way for a lot of women players, and I thank her for that."
King is no longer the activist. She is channeling the evangelical fervor with which she approaches every endeavor into a competitive comeback at age 36. She is training fanatically and letting others shape the policies of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the players guild she helped found and long dominated by sheer force of personality.
"I've dropped out because I think it's basically up to the others to determine their destiny," she said yesterday. "But because of the decade ending, it's impossible not to think about what happened in the last 10 years, and wonder what's going to happen in the next 10.
"The thing I'm most impressed with is the steady growth of the numbers playing, and the level of performance. The improvement in a decade is unbelievable, even though this week has kind of been contrary to the past year," she added, referring to the lopsided scores that have made the first three days of the Series Championship disappointingly lackluster.
"If you look at the scores in most tournaments this year, compared to 10 years ago, they're very close. There's a lot more so-called upsets than there used to be. It's getting more like the men's game in depth. In the future, somebody who wins eight or 10 tournaments is going to be ranked No. 1 in the world, instead of 20 tournaments like in the old days." In 1971, King became the first $100,000 a year woman in tennis by winning 10 titles. The influx of eager new talent was most noticeable during the first week of this year's U.S. Open. The courts of the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow N.Y., were overrun by teeny-boppers, some emulating the glacial Evert Lloyd and Austin with their Grim Reaper ground strokes and two-fisted backhands, others imitating the explosive power game of Navratilova, who couturier and peerless women's tennis historian Ted Tinling calls "the epitome of the serve-volley game for women, an example to the 80s of what can be done."
"This is what Billie Jean predicted five years ago, and it's happening now," said Navratilova, marveling at the horde of kids that make her feel ancient at age 23. "It's going to become harder and harder for the top players, but in the long run it's good for all of us."
Women's tennis is thriving because it has been attractively packaged, sensibly presented on court surfaces that showcase the skill and finesse of the players, and consolidated into one identifiable tour, unlike the maddeningly fragmented men's game.
"The prize money has gone up every year, we've provided more opportunities for more players, and we haven't divided and diluted the talent," King said.
"Some people disagree with me, but I think that's very important. The top players go against each other often. We give the public the best show we can every given week, and that has added to our credibility.
"I think the women have been very good and cohesive in trying to fulfill our commitments to the promoters and sponsors. Because people don't believe in women athletes as much as men athletes, we've had to be more concerned with that. We just don't get handed things as easily as the men."
Virginia Slims also had much to do with instilling this admirable professionalism in the women's game. Adding a new and creative dimension to the traditional sponsor's role -- signing checks -- it retained Tinling to design fashions that added sparkle and sex appeal to women's tennis.
It schooled the players in their on- and off-court responsibilities to the public, and taught them how real stars act. It paid scrupulous attention to the details of presentation that add a touch of class to tournaments.
The fact that the pioneer players remained active helped, because newcomers became immediately mindful of the struggle it had taken to establish the circuit.
"I think our story has been told often, and it gives the women a sense of history and perspective," said King, the matriarch. "I just hope it doesn't diminish as each generation passes.
"All we can hope is that each generation hands down the history and the example. I know that sometimes I'm the worst example, because of my temperament. Chris is probably the best professional, as far as conduct and living up to commitments."
That is the kind of attitude that is decidedly lacking in contemporary men's tennis, which has regrettably become a bastion of greed, selfishness, boorish behavior and riches taken for granted. One needs look no further than Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe to find the "Me Generation" in short pants . . . colorful, talented, appealing to a new breed of fans, but somehow offensive to the gentlemanly heritage of a marvelous game.
Women's tennis could follow the same path very easily. But thankfully, with the influence of a matriarch such as King and a second generation leader like Evert Lloyd, it might not succumb so easily to the temptations.