The great ones tell you with their eyes. Billie Jean King stood in a dim stairway. The day's dying light bent through translucent glass at the top of Wimbledon's empty stadium. Billie Jean's eyes told you she loves it. She loved being great. She loves being 38 in a kid's game. Her eyes are wide and blue and unblinking. Her eyes see dreams.
She came to Centre Court alone one day in May. She came to talk to the ghosts. She called them "the spirits of Wimbledon." She has this meeting every year. She can see her ghosts, she said in the dim stairway. She sees them curtsying and bowing to royalty.
"I think of what must have gone through their minds, and what it must have meant to them," she said. She thinks of the great ones--Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden and Lew Hoad. She comes to the old wooden ballpark with its green everywhere. She walks down beside the court.
"I don't get on it," she said, "because they're mowing it. The workers look at me, like, 'You're not going to come out here, are you?' "
Billie Jean's eyes lit up the dim stairway.
"Sometimes, I put my foot on it."
She played again at Wimbledon today. No big deal. She's been playing here since 1961. Chris Evert was 6 years old the first time Billie Jean Moffitt stepped on Centre Court. They gave Billie Jean a gold plate today for playing her 100th singles match. Nobody else ever did that.
It was nice, the plate. She has won 20 championships at her game's prettiest place. Six times the singles champion, 10 times the doubles, four times the mixed. Nobody else ever did that. In 20 summers here--she "retired" in 1976--she has won 211 matches and lost 35. The plate was a Spode, they said, which is nice.
Billie Jean has had five operations on her knees and one on a foot. It isn't easy being 38 in tennis. She lifts weights, she stops the various swellings with ice, she stretches muscles that want to get shorter with age. She doesn't do these things so Wimbledon will give her plates.
She does them because she dreams. The great ones see things the rest of us don't. On evidence a mile high, Billie Jean stands convicted of being an unabashed seeker of attention. Like the other old folks she admires--Pete Rose, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Muhammad Ali--she grows large in the light of fame. If you stand her in a dim stairway and ask about Wimbledon, her eyes, wide and blue and magnetic in their contact, tell you this woman is made of the single-minded steel of greatness.
In 1959, at 16, Billie Jean Moffitt played her first match against a Wimbledon champion. She met Margaret Dupont. Two years later, she played her first match at Wimbledon against Yola Ramirez--on Centre Court. Five years after that, in 1966, she won here and then won the next two years, too.
She was 25. "Nobody in the U.S. knew who I was then," she said, "because that was a time in history when people at home would say, 'Wimble-ton,' and ask, 'Is that golf?' I'd go, 'Tennis,' and they'd say, 'Oh.' "
Billie Jean helped change that. She is an instinctive politician. There in the dim stairway today, someone asked what, other than the championships, she would remember about Wimbledon. "I just love Centre Court," she said. And then the old campaigner went into a pitch for more mixed doubles coverage by the media.
By the strength of her skill and belligerent effervescence, she literally created women's pro tennis. She and three others turned pro in 1967. She then carried women's tennis to equality with men's. Martina Navratilova earned $865,437 on tour in 1981: Billie Jean King didn't earn that much altogether in her first seven years as a pro.
"I didn't even know it was my 100th match until I went out the other day, and a player said, 'The 100th, huh?' "
For the 100th match, maybe 1,000 came to Court 14. The boondocks. Just to see the Grand Old Champion.
"They were very nice. Packed all around, and I liked it," King said.
Every generation puts age on the next one, she said, and it pleases her to have helped her game, pleases her as much as winning the six singles championships. When she hears that number 100, it "makes me very tired," she said, only to add, "but I'm not tired, it's terrific that I've lasted this long . . . More and more athletes could compete to 45, but they don't want to pay the price."
Another 20, Billie Jean?
"Twenty?" she said, laughing. "Years? Or matches? Can I visualize another 20 matches? No, I don't imagine I'll be playing another five years." The decision to retire will be made, she said, on a "weekly basis now, according to results." It's difficult to have been great, she said, to have been No. 1, and have it slip away. "If you're No. 1, It's only for a fleeting moment, so you better enjoy it."
And then, when you're old and they put you on Court 14, you'll remember how it was. You'll remember how you curtsied on Centre Court, what you thought of it, how much it meant to you. And when you're 38, you'll stand in the dying light of another Wimbledon day and say, "I can do all right here this time."
Does Billie Jean think of winning here this time?
"I'll think about winning Wimbledon when I'm 100."
Then she turned into the dim light, walked up the steps. Her right knee quivered at the effort.