When we left Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King at Wimbledon on Tuesday evening, they looked like characters out of a remake of "Wuthering Heights." It was dark and gloomy on Centre Court. Rain was falling. Chilly gusts swirled the sort of raw mist associated with desolate English moors.One half expected to see a brooding Healthcliff in the umpire's chair, intoning "Play will not be abondoned until the balls float."
That was the setting for the first set of a quarter-final match that had not gone on court until nearly 7:30 on a dreary evening. In failing light, Navratilova and King battled on serve to 6-all. As the tie breaker started, mist turned to drizzle to rain. Both players expected the umpire would suspend the match. In the manner of Wimbledon officials, he did nothing.
King could hardly see because she didn't have windshield wipers on her glasses. "She's like a boxer fighting blind," noted an observer at courtside.Somehow she managed to find the ball, cracking a forehand passing shot and a backhand volley to lead in the tie breaker, 5-1.
Navratilova won three points, but King had two serves to come. She ran to the sideline and grabbed a towel to wipe her lenses. Navratilova turned to her mother and father, huddling under overcoats in the competitors' guest box.
"Do you believe this?" she cried, plaintively.
No one quite believed this bizarre scene, but the match went on. King served, and Navratilova drilled a forehand cross-court return winner into the mist. King served again, and another winning return -- a backhand down-the-line chip this time. Three points later, another backhand and return winner, and Navratilova owned the first set, 8-6 in the tie breaker.
Finally, as the rain poured down, play was suspended, and the players sprinted off the court. King was incensed.
The scene was quite different when they resumed today at noon.The sun was shining. The grass was dry. The players even cast shadows on the court. Just about everyone expected Navratilova to win the second set fairly easily. Little did we know that there was still a good deal of Bronte novel left in this match.
King, 36 years old and playing on recycled wheels, started out the second set with a dazzling display of tennis worthy of her career record 20 Wimbledon titles. She won the first 10 points, 20 of the first 23. Her eyes were riveted on the ball. She was bending her knees, getting low on service returns and volleys, lunging and stretching for marvelous shots. She missed only three first serves, and conceded only seven points, in winning the second set in 15 minutes. If she keeps playing like this, people murmured, she could win her seventh singles title.
Could she keep it up? the preliminary answer came quickly, as BJK lost her serve at love to trail 0-2 in the final set. But she is a trouper. She broke right back, held to 2-2, and had belted a down-the-line winner to get to 0-40 on Navratilova's serve at 3-3.
This was the moment for which she had been waiting, and training, for a year and a half -- ever since surgery on her left foot in December 1978. Last year, she played Wimbledon and got to the quarterfinals, but she never really believed in her heart that she could win. She led Tracy Austin in the third set, but then folded, because she hadn't done the necessary preparation. This year she had. She was ready.
Three break points, and she lost five points in a row. She played them badly. "That was the biggest choke of all time," she said later. "I just choked. I didn't make it happen. I knew I just needed one great shot on those points, and I couldn't find one."
Navratilova had been playing dreadfully, but she produced big shots when she was most in danger -- the true sign of a champion. But at 5-5, she played an awful game, netting four volleys. Dejected, seeing her chance of the third successive singles title that no woman has achieved at Wimbledon since King in 1966-67-68 going down the drain, she buried her head in a towel at the change over.
King served for the match at 6-5, and missed four volleys, too. "I say, the standard of play has taken an awful plunge," said the BBC radio commentator. With a victory she has been fantasizing for months right there on her racket, King choked again. In 20 years at Wimbledon, she probably never felt more frustrated than at that moment.
In all her years here, King has never seen a Wimbledon like this one. The weather has been the worst. She was stung by a bee during her third round victory over Peanut Louie. That same afternoon, at set point in a doubles match she won with Navratilova, the net fell down. Now here she was, in just the position she wanted to be, and she choked.
She kept fighting. In this peculiar, dramatic, Gothic novel of a match, both players made magnificient shots when they were behind, and butchered easy ones when the were within sight of victory. King saved three match points on her serve at 6-7, three more at 7-8. Each time, she hit a good first serve to Navratilova's left-handed backhand, the side she had exploited throughout the match, and followed up with good volleys.
Navratilova's heart was thumping madly. "I could hear it, and feel it, in that set. The tension was just multiplying," she said. What else could happen? At the change over before she served at 8-9, King broke her glasses -- the first time this has happened to her in her career.
Fortunately, she had another pair. But she had trouble adjusting to the slightly different lens. She kept fiddling with them, trying to focus as quickly as she could.
Quickly she was down, 15-40. Two more match points. Again she put in good first serves to the backhand and volleyed well. But at deuce, she hit a weak volley, and Navratilova passed her with a forehand for match point No. 9.
This time, King served to the forehand. Navratilova returned down the line. The ball fell on the sideline, out of reach. A winner.
King grimaced. Her heart fell. What a way to lose, after 20 years at Wimbledon.