NEW YORK — It was a terribly perfect moment. Here was Billie Jean King, her hair neatly coiffed, and Virginia Wade, with a long pearl necklace, and Margaret Court and Tracy Austin and Althea Gibson and Hana Mandlikova and even Maria Bueno and Alice Marble — 14 in all, huddled in the stadium’s concrete tunnel, a gang of ex-champions in pumps and pantsuits.
Only one woman was missing.
“Is she coming?” an official asked.
“Yeah, she’s just cooling down for a minute,” came the answer.
The women talked softly amongst themselves, just inside the entrance to the center court of Louis Armstrong Stadium. This was the 100th anniversary of women’s singles at the U.S. Open, and these past champions had been asked to come and take a bow in front of the crowd.
Only one woman was missing.
“We have to get started,” the official said.
“Go ahead,” came the answer. “She’ll be here.”
The announcer began his introductions, and one at a time, the former champions filed out toward center court, waving to the cheering crowd. It got very noisy in the tunnel. And very crowded. And then, when almost nobody was looking, Chris Evert Lloyd walked up, still in her pink tennis dress and the sweaty socks, and quietly took her place at the end of the line.
Mandlikova turned and saw her and put a hand on her shoulder. Lloyd shrugged. Ten minutes earlier she had been defeated by Helena Sukova in the Open’s semifinals on this same stadium court.
There would be no Saturday for Lloyd, no finals, not this summer. For the first time in 14 years she would not see the glory round of either the U.S. Open or Wimbledon. She is 31 years old. She had to be thinking. This is how quickly it can turn. One minute you’re out there sweating, the next you’re in line with the Once-Great.
How terribly perfect. Generation gap closing
“Are you OK?” asked Billie Jean King, laughing as she said it, because she knew, of course, that Chris was both OK and awful. That’s how it is when a champion loses.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” answered Lloyd, forcing a thin-lipped smile, and King scampered back to the front of the line to wait for her name to be called.
The match had been rough. Lloyd had been soundly defeated in two sets, 6-2, 6-4. It took most observers by surprise, not only because Lloyd has won the title here six times, but because she had beaten Sukova 14 straight times.
And yet Friday, Sukova looked mighty, and Lloyd looked old. The young Czech, who stands 6-feet-2, was overpowering with her serve, played smart at the net and ran Chris ragged.
“Are the younger players playing you tougher now?” someone would ask Lloyd later.
“The gap is closing,” she would say. ‘It’s getting closer and closer. Players like Hana and Helena and Steffi Graf are not intimidated with me or Martina (Navratilova) anymore. That’s obvious.”
Back in line, Lloyd patted her hair and moved up slowly, her mind still on the match. There was a point when it appeared savvy and experience would once again win it for Lloyd. She had lost the first set, but she knew Sukova had a nervous streak, and leading 4-3 in the second set, Sukova double-faulted into the net. That tied it at deuce. Nerves. Lloyd could feel the nerves. If Lloyd could hit the next two points, she would go up 5-3, break Sukova’s serve and be well-poised to win the second set.
Instead, she hit a feeble forehand long and lost that game, the next and the next. That was it. She had been eliminated. No Saturday. Not this summer.
“Forget it,” Mandlikova whispered to her, as they moved up together in the line.
“Right,” Lloyd whispered back. A fixture is removed
Chris Evert Lloyd is a fixture in this U.S. Open, a semifinalist for the last 16 years. This is the only Grand Slam tournament on her home soil, and she wanted it terribly this year, because of her age, because of her injured left knee — which is casting shadows on her future — and because she just wants to win. She always wants to win.
“Is this loss more significant than most others?” someone would ask her.
“Well at 31, when I lose, everyone maybe thinks it’s time for Chris to retire,” she would say. “But I have a much better perspective on losing now. .
. . I’m actually pretty upset, to tell you the truth.”
“Why?” someone would ask.
“Why?” she would say. “Because I’m a competitor. Any competitor hates to lose. I mean, how else do you come back and win?”
Back in the stadium, the announcer called out her credentials, her Grand Slam wins, all her Open titles. She moved out toward the entrance. She was the last player called, and when the people saw her they began to cheer.
“Chris Evert Lloyd . . . ”
She squeezed her eyes once, then walked out, her head high, and took her place alongside Court and King and Gibson, to the left of all that history, and to the right of where her last shot had gone out against Sukova 15 minutes earlier. A loser, but still a champion. Terribly perfect. The whole thing.