Susan Ware: There Will Always Be a Wimbledon

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  To me, at least. Today kicks off the 125th Championships, Wimbledon at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London.  Full disclosure, I have the live scores site open a few tabs over.  It’s the oldest tennis tournament, and the most prestigious Grand Slam, where players still wear the traditional tennis whites.  Break out your strawberries and cream (and let’s be real, the Pimm’s cup),  because to kick off the fortnight we welcome a guest post from Susan Ware, author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. Here, Ware looks at King’s ties to the tournament where she was a singles champion 6 times and how the female players before and after her have shaped the tournament and the game. -Alex

Billie Jean King loves Wimbledon. In fact, it is probably her favorite place on earth. She loves the traditions, the quality of play, and the knowledgeable fans. And she treasures her personal memories: winning the doubles championship in 1961 at the age of seventeen with Karen Hantze; garnering her sixth singles title in 1975 (she finished her career with twenty Wimbledon titles overall); making it to the semi-finals in 1982 at age thirty-eight before losing to Chris Evert; and many return trips since as a television commentator and honored guest. As she once said, only partly in jest, “I’ll think about winning Wimbledon when I’m 100.”

Billie Jean King consciously embraces the long history that Wimbledon embodies. “Every time I walk onto Centre Court at Wimbledon, I think of all those people who came before me—Suzanne Lenglen, Alice Marble, Helen Wills Moody, Althea Gibson, Maureen Connolly—all those players left me something. I wouldn’t play the way I play without them.” In turn Billie Jean King has served as a model and inspiration for tennis players ever since. When Venus Williams won Wimbledon in 2007 (the first time that prize money was equal for men and women), she looked up to the players’ box and said to a beaming Billie Jean, “No one loves tennis more than Billie Jean King. I love you. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

As part of my goal to write a biography of Billie Jean King that also served as a chronicle of the revolution in women’s sports since the 1970s, Wimbledon loomed large. So in April of 2010 when in London for the premiere of the rock musical “Hair,” my husband and I set out on a pilgrimage. In retrospect we realized that the top tennis players who stayed at posh London hotels probably were whisked out to Wimbledon in town cars (or whatever the English equivalent is) but we took the lowly tube, since Wimbledon, at least on the map, looks like just a nearby suburb. The map underestimated the amount of time it took, plus the fact that the grounds of Wimbledon, nestled in a middle-class neighborhood, were a long trek from the station. But we got there eventually.

After a quick lunch in the cafeteria (too early for strawberries and cream, but still tasty) and a tour of the gift shop, we saved the best for last: a glimpse of Centre Court. To accommodate visitors, especially during the rest of the year when the tournament is not being played, the club has constructed a viewing box that allows a panorama of the fabled yet surprisingly intimate site. What fun to pick out various spots that are so familiar from years of watching Wimbledon on television: the royal box, the family seating area, the broadcasting booth, the score board, and so forth. For a peek at what it looks like, check out the author photo for Game, Set, Match which was taken that day by my husband with Centre Court as the backdrop.

Susan Ware (photo by Don Ware)

Of course I will always remember that trip to England for another reason: the explosion of a volcano in Iceland that caused all air travel from Europe to be suspended indefinitely. For a while it looked like our vacation stay in London might turn out to be permanent, but the volcanic ash cloud did finally dissipate and we made it home a week late. Someday I am determined to return for the Wimbledon Fortnight, my own personal tribute to Billie Jean King and her enormous impact on women’s tennis and women’s sports in general.

Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography.