Today we complete a two-part look back at Billie Jean King's one and only Roland Garros title—won 50 years ago, in 1972, and which completed a career Grand Slam for the American. (The above photo shows King in action during her final-round win over Evonne Goolagaong) Earned on the terre battue in Paris, it was BJK's training on California hard courts that helped pave her eventual path to the championship. Here's how:
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Billie Jean King’s Battle of Roland Garros was won on the hard courts of Southern California (Part 2 of 2)
“I knew I wanted to at last win the French.” The trailblazer made it happen during her banner 1972 season.
Published May 20, 2022
In 1966, married now to Larry, Billie Jean King won Wimbledon, her first of 12 singles majors, and commenced a three-year reign as the world’s best. Gradually, King learned how to compete successfully on the clay. “Red clay is very artistic,” she says. “It’s fun to watch. You’ve got to slide, then hit, not hit and then slide. You can’t just come in down the line like you do on hard courts. You’ve got to hit more angles, open up the court more.” A big step forward came in 1970, when King won the Italian Open, saving two match points versus Virginia Wade in the semis and in the final beating the defending champion, Julie Heldman.
“I knew I wanted to at last win the French,” says King. “Fortunately, the person who really could have won it, Chris Evert, didn’t play it in ’72 because she was still going to high school. But she was generous enough to spend a week with me, practicing on the clay in Florida.”
Arriving in Paris, King stayed at a boutique hotel in a room far smaller than those she’d grown accustomed to. “It didn’t matter,” she says. “I was there to win.” As always, King was also there to learn. “The Four Musketeers inspired me because they all did it as a team and I love team sports. It was great to talk to Rene Lacoste and understand how he thought.”
King reached the final with wins in the round of 16 versus fellow “Original Nine” member Valerie Ziegenfuss, Wade in the quarters and, in the semis, a straight-set victory over the woman who’d last beaten her at Roland Garros, crafty Helga Niessen Masthoff. Her last opponent would be defending champion, Evonne Goolagong. In 1971, a month after taking the title in Paris, the 19-year-old Goolagong had made an even more surprising run to victory at Wimbledon. “She beat me in the semis in a match that went incredibly fast,” says King.
But this time would be different. It happened on June 3, 1972. As Rex Bellamy, the longstanding British tennis journalist who covered Roland Garros that year, wrote, “Bursting with zest and confidence, Billie Jean was really ‘up’ for this one. She played beautifully, blending drop shots and lobs into a tactical authority that repeatedly opened up the court . . . the final with Goolagong was often absorbing. There were rallies sparkling with wit and nimble footwork.”
All that said, King closed out the match in a way that nicely linked her love of both innovation and tradition. Innovation for her took the form of patience, King on this point serving and staying back at the baseline. Not until the eleventh ball of the rally did she make her way to net—in this case, the traditional slice backhand down-the-line approach she’d sharply honed on those Southern California hard courts. As Goolagong laced a crosscourt pass, King stabbed a forehand volley down-the-line that landed inside the service line. Scampering in, Goolagong could only carve a down-the-line backhand that went out.
At the height of her powers in 1972, King would go on that year to win Wimbledon and the US Open. But for many reasons—most of all the creation of World Team Tennis, the co-ed league she and Larry co-founded, inspired greatly by those co-ed practices at Cal State LA—King would not compete again at Roland Garros until 1980. She remains one of only ten women to have won the singles title at all four majors.