History books don't reveal which royal personage was in the royal box that day in 1961 when Billie Jean King played her first match at Wimbledon, Centre Court. Peter Morgan, master of ceremonies, took her aside and explained the way things are done, that when royalty is present competitors are expected to stop at the service line and curtsy.
Billie Jean King, who is one of them, believes in Wimbledon's traditions no matter how hard they are on her knees. Today as she left Centre Court after winning her 92nd Wimbledon singles match, a record, she realized that the Princess Michael of Kent was in the box. She also knew that Beth Herr, who had never been on Centre Court before, did not know the etiquette. "She said, 'What do I do now?' " King said.
"Put your right leg behind your left and bend," she told Herr.
Herr bowed to the King and curtsied to the princess, but she did not lose bowing and scraping. The score was 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 8-6. "Billie said I should have won," Herr said.
Awe didn't earn King any points today. Herr, the NCAA champion from Southern California who is 19 and playing in only her fourth professional tournament, doesn't remember how old she was when she first heard King's name. Chris Evert Lloyd, with her two-fisted backhand, was her idol. And today Herr had trouble with that funny, old-fashioned one-handed backhand King uses. "I knew she was good on grass," Herr said. "I wasn't going out there thinking she was Chris or Martina."
King lost to Evert in the semis here last year and will have to beat her in the quarters this year to get that far again. Evert won easily today beating Marcella Mesker, 6-4, 6-2. But first King will have to beat her old friend and rival Rosie Casals, who beat Petra Delhees, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. "Rosie said, 'Let me see where all your ice bags are,' " King said.
King promised it will be a match with style. The match between the two young base line sensations, Carling Bassett and Andrea Temesvari, will be one of quite another style. Today, Temesvari, ranked 14th, beat Manuela Maleeva, 7-5, 6-4, in a match that looked like it should have been played on clay. Bassett, ranked 28th and the costar of the movie "Spring Fever," easily beat Sharon Walsh, 6-2, 6-3, and immediately announced that she would rather win Wimbledon than the Academy Award.
Every year before her first match King heads for Centre Court to hold a meeting with the spirits that reign there. Got to get those love vibes, she says.
Sometimes Suzanne Lenglen speaks to her. Who knows what words of wisdom Lenglen offered today. Whatever she said, it worked. King lost the first set in a tie breaker, then was 2-2 when King served what she was sure was a net--"Not only did I see it, I heard it," she said. But the net judge heard no evil and saw no evil and Herr went on to win it.
King got mad and got even in the second set, winning the first five games. But she never felt as comfortable as she usually does on Centre Court, missing too many first serves and too many opportunities. The ball just wouldn't do what she wanted. "I kept saying, 'God, you love this court, what's wrong?' "
She broke in the fifth game of the final set when Herr, whose passing shots were for the most part unerring, made an unforced backhand error to give King the first break point of the set. On break point Herr netted a first serve and King attacked the second, pressuring.
Herr's forehand passing shot went wide and King led, 3-2. At 5-4, King served for the match and Herr played her best game of the day. Two resounding backhand return winners, and a forehand pass down the line made it 15-40. King missed another first serve and on the second she stayed back. Playing from the base line she made a good backhand cross court to set up the point but when she got a chance her forehand went wide. Herr broke and they were even at five.
King broke in the 13th game to lead 7-6 as two of Herr's passing shots went awry. On the change, King stretched out her 39-year-old hamstrings and came out to serve for the match. She served and volleyed and did all the things, perhaps not as well, that have won her six Wimbledon singles championships.
Someone asked if she was thinking that perhaps this would be her last singles match at Wimbledon when she went out to serve.
"No," she said slowly. "I felt it might prove whether I could still guts it out or not and produce when I have to. I didn't want to think about the 5-4 game because I was really upset about that game. I thought I played pretty well to get to that position and I didn't finish. I thought it was important to forget that. You might not be worrying about whether you can finish. You might be finished.
"I've run too many miles this year, served too many serves this year. If I can't find a way to get through this match then she's too good, that's what went through my mind: effort, grinding it out, winning under pressure, making it happen. It's the point of no return."
Sometime soon, she is not sure when, King will reach the point of no return. She thought she reached it in 1975 after she won her sixth Wimbledon. In 1981 she didn't play at all. Some think she plays now because there isn't anything else for her; because she wants to be remembered for what she has done, not for the lawsuits that have been brought against her. She says those people don't understand her at all and don't want to.
She plays now because she learned that loving it was enough and she didn't have to be No. 1 to love it. "I don't think the youngsters are too impressed with me," she said. "They probably think, 'Why don't you get out? What a pain.' "
But King continues because the spirit is there, even when the flesh is unwilling to do what it once could.