40 Years Ago: Lady Outlaws

by: Steve Tignor | December 04, 2013

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Signs of the 70s: Margaret Court, who won three of four majors in 1973, approaches the net.

This week I'm going back 40 years, to tennis in the tumultuous year of 1973. On Monday I wrote about the men's boycott at Wimbledon; yesterday I covered Arthur Ashe's trip to South Africa. Today we switch to the women, who were going through their own tennis revolution that season. It was the year of the Mother's Day Massacre, the Battle of the Sexes, the formation of the WTA, and the dawn of equal pay at the U.S. Open. 

All of that and more is covered in A Long Way, Baby, a book by New York Times reporter Grace Lichtenstein, who followed the women's circuit(s) in 1973. In this post, and one later today, I'll talk about that book, and the WTA then and now, with Tennis Journal editor Kamakshi Tandon.

(You can read part two here.)



My first thought on reading A Long Way, Baby was: How could I have not picked this up this before? It tells the tale of the women's game in 1973, a seminal tennis year that I've researched for my own tennis book and dozens of posts and articles in the past. The oversight couldn't be another manifestation of the sexism in sports that's one of the themes of Long Way, could it? 

Whatever the reason, I'm glad I've read it now, because it's entertaining and historically important—I'd put it somewhere in my Top 10 tennis books. Lichtenstein's writing is smart but never slow, left-leaning but not sanctimonious, a product of the feminist moment of the time, yet not dated. A writer for the New York Times and a total tennis outsider, Lichtenstein followed the women's tour for a season—quite a season it was, too. In '73, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs and started the WTA; Margaret Court won three of the four majors but lost the Mother's Day Massacre, and Chris Evert saw her profile rise as a player and star. The sport was hitting its stride, and the women's version of it was breaking through.

Yet the women remained split into two tours in '73—the game's professional future still had to contend with its amateurish past. King and Court led the independent Virginia Slims circuit, while Evonne Goolagong and Evert, who was still a conservative teenager who traveled with her mom, were the marquee names on a tour that had been created by the USLTA. By '73, the U.S. federation, rapidly losing control of the sport it had run for nearly a century, knew it couldn't beat the pros, so it tried to join them. 

Lichtenstein travels with both groups. She says the Slims had the feel a professional theatre troupe, while the USTA circuit reminded her of summer camp. She hangs out with all of the players, famous and less so, and we get a glimpse of all of their lives and personalities, as filtered through her somewhat sardonic 70s New Yorker's viewpoint. As an outsider—she didn't know how to keep score when she started the book—Lichtenstein was able to make that viewpoint an honest one, and more critical than I anticipated. She writes that "nobody in the world credited Evonne Goolagong with an excessive IQ." She mocks 16-year-old USLTA newbie Martina Navratilova's accent and penchant for junk food; she's the "pancake champ" who gains so much weight on tour that she has to get all new clothes, right down to her sneakers. Lichtenstein takes a long, cool look at Margaret Court and says to herself, "You're dull." And while the reviews of Billie Jean are mostly glowing, Lichtenstein isn't afraid to call her an "egotist" and describe her, in the days leading up to the Riggs match, as "acting like a paranoid bitch." Yet Lichtenstein always seems fair in her assessments, as well as psychologically insightful.

What did you think? Had you read the book before? I'll send this conversation to you with a question, the obvious question, really: After seeing this view of the founding days of the WTA, how do you think today's version matches up?

I was struck by how much importance Lichtenstein attached to women's tennis at that time—it was, in her's and BJK's minds, nothing less than the feminist movement made physical, made visual. I wonder if any professional tour in any sport has ever begun with so much political hope and baggage attached? For a progressive person like Lichtenstein, it was far more than a game, or a business, or a show. The Slims was proof that women could operate and succeed independently. Throughout the book, there's a sense that she's still a little stunned to see the whole enterprise happening, to see her fellow women doing what, until then, men had only done: negotiating endorsements, working out with a trainer, hanging out in a locker room together. All of these things, of course, are completely normal to us now—a long way, for sure.

How did you like the book, Kamakshi, and what do you think of the WTA then compared to now?


Hi Steve,

Funny you ask, because I've got a story about this book. I read it during the tournament in Toronto one year, a time when Martina Navratilova was in the midst of a doubles comeback. There was a quiet afternoon with no matches when she practiced in the stadium—seeing that it was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to watch the "Lejj" play up close, my brother and I made our way there and somehow slipped into seats right behind the court. She went up to net to hit some balls, and I may or may not have told him, "You're seeing one of the best volleys in history."

Afterwards, people gathered around and she signed autographs. I was already too high-and-mighty to get one, but my brother could. Since we didn't have anything else, I gave him the book. He handed her the beat-up paperback, open to the first page—she took it, flipped to the cover and looked up, probably puzzled to see a young boy in possession of it. "This is an old book," she said. 'Where did you get it?'

"It's my sister's," he replied (I like to think proudly).

So that's why I've got an autographed copy of A Long Way, Baby, though Martina only makes a limited appearance in it as a chubby but talented teenager eating junk food while wearing a T-shirt that reads, "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing."

Reading it again, I did pause early on when—like you—I came across the part where Lichtenstein talks about learning new terminology like "up a break. " This is the person who's going to be telling me what's going on?, I wondered. But it did at least make me feel like it was going to be an authentic account, and as a visitor she speaks more freely than a regular might have.

Her unvarnished accounts give you a sense, very quickly, of what these players were like, really like—the kind of account you get over drinks rather than the kind you read in a typical magazine profile. They may not be as complete, or as even-handed, but the insights can be more valuable. So Court is conservative, reserved, and gives boring interviews; but later, she also praises her younger rivals with a generosity that impresses Lichtenstein. Chris Evert is the type of person she doesn't expect to like, and tries not to like, but who turns out to be so exactly what she's supposed to be that she ends up liking her anyway. There's a sampling of Billie Jean's energy, both exhausting and inspiring. If Lichtenstein has a favorite, it's Rosie Casals, a cigar-smoking, brash-talking shotmaker who reads philosophers in her hotel room.

All these players of which you've heard, but never saw, are now a little more familiar. There are also parts that make you smile because you know something that came out later, or how things will turn out in ways they don't yet imagine. The Kings' relationship seems to be getting a little rocky? You've got no idea. Evert's soon going to give up tennis to keep house and Googlagong will quit after having a family? Yeah, right.

It's also nice to get a glimpse of some of the lower profile players, like Jeanne Evert and Julie Heldman, who turn out to be rather interesting in their own right. The descriptions are apt—we both know what it's like when a player's eyes switch off and recited answers start coming out—so it's easy to get the vibe between the players and the atmosphere at the different events.

What struck me—and I'd never realized this before—was how symbolic it was to have Court and King, so different in politics and personality, as the dual figureheads of women's tennis during this pivotal time. In a way, they represent many of the conflicts and contradictions that were inherent in the whole enterprise.

What might be interesting sometime is to compare A Long Way Baby, written about 1973, with other books about the women's tour, like Ladies of the Court around 1993, or Venus Envy from 2001, to see how issues and preoccupations change.

Many of the things Lichtenstein touches on are familiar—competing, pressure, winning, juggling school and the tour, losing, money, attendance, sponsors, contracts, traveling, hotels, locker rooms, friendships, guys, clothes, and the like. Sexual orientation gets a mention or two, but no one specifically. There's only one agent around, apart from family members who act for a few players. And there's the faintly scandalous rumor that Margaret Court—gasp—might have tried lifting weights.

But equally apparent are the things that aren't there—coaches, entourages, agents (plural), scheduling, doping, grunting (to think they made fun of Chrissie's yelps), training, gyms, travelling outside Europe and the US, players from outside Europe and the US, social media, naked or semi-naked photo shoots, designer this and that, clothing lines, candy lines...

A long way, indeed.

There are also a few things in the book that you don't see a lot of today—political awareness and activism, for one, and serve-volleying.

Some of the book's focus on feminism and sociopolitical issues may come more from the author than the tour. Lichtenstein does say many of the players weren't as interested in these topics as she would have liked; they were athletes first and women second. But it was also a time when players like King and Arthur Ashe were major political figures, for which there aren't really any equivalents today. Maybe it's just that circumstances have changed—the amount of disadvantage King and Ashe faced perhaps isn't there either.

The women of 1973 were outcasts, iconoclasts, while the women players of today are privileged professionals. Being a socially approved role model and doing charity work to help others is more the thing now.

What do you think—does that mean the effort was a success? What gains have the women made and have there been any setbacks? Is the women's game more respected now or was it then? Like the women's movement in general, it can be hard to draw a straight line.

On the issue of playing styles, it was a different game back then and probably not that arresting when seen today. Still, the accounts of Court's gigantic arm swinging up to hit a volley did make me long for a bit more of that. While I enjoy watching Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the amount of variety seems to have receded a lot even in the past few years.

Carlos Rodriguez had a lot to say about this at Wimbledon—it's good to do interviews where the person gets going on something that's important to them—essentially arguing that if it was up to him, he would introduce different age categories (U-16s, U-14s, etc.) and not allow players to play up. What happens, he felt, is that talented players move up and face bigger, stronger players, and all they can do is try to get the ball back and generate power themselves—they don't have time to "create." Justine Henin was constantly described as very talented—yes, yes, she is talented, Rodriguez said a little impatiently, but she had to develop that talent through co-ordination drills and exercises. He sees a lot of young talented players, but forcing them to progress quickly to attract sponsors means they don't have time to build their skills before they get on the tour.

So that's the opinion of the guy who took Henin from juniors to No. 1. More qualified than mine, anyway (or Patrick Mouratoglou, for that matter), but see what what you make of it. However it's done, though, we could do with a few more players who play like Justine—or King, or Court, or Navratilova.

(You can read part two here.)

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