The Gospel of Billie Jean

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Inspiration, Leadership, and Tennis as an Art Form and Vehicle for Change

By Bill Simons

You’re a firemen’s daughter. At the Open, we saw Vicky Duval, who emerged out of Haiti. And there’s Novak Djokovic, who is from a Serbian mountain village. Talk about tennis as a vehicle of change.

We are global, which is great. It makes our sport special. You get cricket in six countries, you get rugby in ten.

Sports, arts, and music are all universal languages and a way to reach across the aisle. Maybe we have to get congressmen to think like that right now. We have to find a common language. Tennis is an art form, it is dance. It is how you shape time and space. It has a wonderful feeling.

When you feel a kind of euphoria on court, does that somehow go out to the crowd?

It does—you share that experience with everybody. It’s something you’ve worked hard for, something you’ve had to earn. You just can’t do it [overnight].

You’ve met the President, the First Lady, the Royal Family—

Mandela.

You didn’t meet Mandela, did you?

Yes, Ilana [Kloss, King’s partner, who is South African] and I met Mandela. It was one of my goals, we’d been trying for years. I’d always wanted to meet him when Arthur [Ashe] met him, but I’m a white girl, I was never on the radar. Even today I am not invited to black [events], and I keep wishing I would be. It would be nice because I’ve always worked for and fought for everybody. But it’s alright. I just wish Arthur could still be alive so we could have some discussions [about] this. We had this discussion at Wimbledon. Every morning, for years, we used to have breakfast together [there]. We had a great time.

Tell me about meeting Mandela.

I was with my mother in Arizona and Zelda [La Grange, Mandela’s private secretary] called Ilana and said, “You can meet Mandela on December 5th.” I said, “It is my one moment,” [and] I got on a plane. I met him in the library at his foundation. We were so excited, we started crying, we couldn’t even breathe. I had waited for that moment. We had been to Robben Island.

You know, Mandela had a tennis court there.

I saw that court, and it actually helped [him]. The guards that liked him and tried to help him would put notes in the [tennis] balls and hit them over the fence.

He described  himself as a baseliner who only came to net when he had a clear slam.

Really? It was an honor and a privilege to meet him. I have met some wonderful people.

What’s the one quality you see in these great leaders?

They are good at actively listening. When I give speeches, I say three things. You should keep learning—especially because of technologies, you have to keep learning. Relationships are everything. And be a problem solver. Problem solvers see things. Mandela saw something and got others to see it. He had the vision and acted on it. He was a transformational alchemist. Some leaders focus on smaller areas, but he was transformational, and that’s what you want. If I could be a leader, that is the kind of leader I want to be.

He so profoundly studied and knew the opposition.

He knew the humane side of things. Forgiveness is huge. He was bigger [because of it]. You have to teach people how you handle things.

So what happened at the grassroots level after your “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs?

That was the single most important tennis match—if you’re old enough, you remember how everything exploded after I played him? All the indoor courts were built back in those days. Everyone was wearing tennis apparel to supermarkets. It was kind of cool.

That was our opportunity [to make tennis a major sport], and we didn’t take advantage. I knew the match was really about social change. I was very clear about what it was going to mean. I was so nervous that the match had to happen, but by the time I played, I was very calm. I’m always very calm when I finally get out there.

People look at the Battle of the Sexes and say it was actually a good moment for women and—

For both genders. It brought us all together, even though it was [the genders] against each other. There were parties in suburbia, and sorority and fraternity parties. It brought boys and girls together, and yet, they were betting against each other. But that was fine.

It was somehow a plus for men, too?

There was a first generation of men who grew up during the women’s movement. You should see how guys’ eyes go up [when they] start thinking about it. They remember how crazy things were. We had [feminists] Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and we were marching with all these banners. [But] men controlled the media.

There was a lengthy article in ESPN the Magazine suggesting that Riggs, a habitual gambler, might have thrown the match. Were you upset by that?

No, because it is so ludicrous. It’s ridiculous. It is a media guy trying to make his name. He has a book out now, I will make it very clear, ok?  If anybody knows any background … First of all, [Bobby’s close friend] Lornie Kuhle said it was ludicrous, and he was the one who was close to Riggs. He was so furious, he couldn’t breathe.

I told him, “Lornie, it’s ok.” Lornie is just so worked up—he is still getting worked up. I said, “Lornie, let it go, this guy is trying to make a name for himself.” And I am not going to say “No comment,” because I want to do the interview. Everyone is saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I say it’s fine. I’ll do it, I don’t care.

The most important thing you have to know is that [Lornie] said to Bobby, “You have to win this match, because if you do, we are going to do a million-dollar winner-takes-all with Chris Evert.” He already had his career lined up, and said, “Bob, if you lose this match, it’s over.” I told Bob before the match that I was never going to play him again.

So there is nothing in the contract?

Show me the contract. They don’t have it. Larry [Riggs, Bobby Riggs’ son] doesn’t have one, Lornie doesn’t have it, no one has one.

The article says Riggs was always a fighter, but he didn’t really fire up and train like a heavyweight.

He was training, he was hitting. You think he wasn’t gonna hit tennis balls? Jesus, come on, give me a break. If you were gonna play in front of 30,000 people, wouldn’t you hit tennis balls?

What if young Billie Jean Moffitt decided to stick with softball or soccer instead of playing tennis?

I was playing softball before tennis. I don’t think I would have had quite the life I’ve had. I would have helped the girls to play for a softball league.

And what if you hadn’t been a driving force in tennis?

I never thought about what else I would do. I would be a leader of something. I would love to see a girl being president. Why not?

If Hilary runs, are you going to work hard for her?

Yes, I love Obama and Hillary, and I will help.

Who is the greatest woman player of all time?

Serena is not finished—by the time she finishes, she should be the best—but Steffi [Graf] for singles, and Martina [Navratilova] for singles, doubles, and mixed. If you want an all-around game, [someone] who can do anything, Martina is still the best. She brought so much … I love doubles—people don’t appreciate doubles enough. Steffi just did singles, but I think Serena will be the best ever.

Nadal’s the No. 1 man.

He’s just hardcore. He learned to adjust to hard courts, which is unbelievable. Nadal is the most adaptable player I’ve seen in years. When I see him on hard courts, every year he is better. Same thing with the first time I saw him play on grass and now. He is so adaptable, and that is very hard to find in people. He’s amazing.

Is it because of his commitment, his love of the game?

The passion to play defines Nadal.

Have you ever seen a more humble elite star than Nadal?

I think Federer is. They are both unbelievable. We are very lucky to have them. Because they could have been in any sport and been great.

There’s such a grace and beauty to Roger’s game.

He plays old fashioned tennis with the new power. He plays like my generation.

We’re going to miss him.

You’re not kidding. But keep it quiet. We want him to play five more years.

Same-sex relationships have come under intense criticism, but are you proud of your enduring relationship with Ilana [Kloss]?

It’s been 34 years. I am very proud of it.

You could say it is one of the great relationships in tennis.

And we can work together, which is amazing. We have our time-outs, when we don’t talk about work. We are cruise chicks; we love to go on cruises. One thing we promised each other is that when we step on that boat, no business. And if we start talking business, we do time-outs and start laughing.

The last time we spoke, you were concerned about the push for gay marriage. You were in favor of civil unions.

I am always worried about protecting people’s legalities. [The progress with gay] marriage is great, I’m thrilled. That’s my optimal goal. But you have to figure it out how to get to the end result of having all of the same rights. There is a tipping point now, [support for gay marriage is soaring] because of Obama.

Russia has played such a great role in tennis, but now they’ve enacted anti-gay laws so that you can’t advocate for gay rights.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t want the athletes to be penalized, but the Olympic committee should say, “This is it—after this, the bid of anybody who isn’t up to speed on rights for gays and lesbians won’t even be considered.” What Putin did was very calculated. He waited until six months before the Olympics [to push anti-gay legislation]. I don’t think [the Olympic committee] had a plan B.

What was your experience in Russia [as part of President Obama’s US delegation to the Sochi Olympics] like?

I was only there a day and a half. We didn’t stop. I didn’t get any sleep. We got to see the bobsled, we got to see the men’s finals in ice hockey. It was a great experience. The weather was perfect. They played Tchaikovsky, and the closing was fantastic with the different authors, and the ballet. I have books at home on Nijinsky and Pavlova, so I was in hog heaven. I have a deep respect for the Russian people, because I’ve been going there forever, since 1962, when I was 18 years old.

For me, it was a fantastic experience. It was an honor to represent the Americans. [But] I also met a gay kid over there who’s going through a very hard time. He’s getting bullied every day. I was told a story where five kids who have been friends since childhood went out, and one of the friends came out to the other four, and they killed him that night. So there’s a lot of challenges from a human rights point of view.

Why these problems in such a great country with a wonderful tradition in the arts?

Well, they’re okaying hate. You can’t okay hate in any society. We have work on it at home, too. It’s easy to look that way, but we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we keep doing the right thing. But they’re okaying hate now. Hate in any form, and that’s why people are taking advantage of those feelings. It makes them feel more powerful, I guess.

Do you think athletes feel a lot of pressure not to speak out?

Yes, You’re not allowed to speak out, or you get in trouble. You can get your medals taken away and [be] sent home. There’s a lot of challenges.

The Ukrainian pro Sergei Stakovsky said that players would lose all their endorsements, all their ties.

Yeah, that was happening while I was there. We had to be careful.

If you sat down with Maria Sharapova, who’s probably the most important athlete in Russia, what would you say?

I would have to listen to her first. I ask a lot of questions.

How would you start the conversation?

I would ask her what she thinks about the situation in Russia. But you have to understand, Putin’s very powerful, and she’s very connected to him. It’s not that easy. I remember seeing her in the locker room when she won Wimbledon [in 2004], and he called her. He said, “I would like you to go out and do an interview with Russian TV,” and she hopped to it. She’s still very connected to her homeland. So it’s not that easy. It’s easy to talk about it, but it’s not easy to live it.

Michelle Obama goes to the US Open and World TeamTennis year after year, and you got the Medal of Freedom from the President.

Michelle is doing these Let’s Move campaigns, and I’m on the president’s council for fitness. I love what they’re trying to do about health. We’re at risk, even from a security viewpoint. Did you know some of our kids have to go to pre-boot camp to pass the physical to be in the service? Also, there are health costs—we need to do anything we can to help, and tennis definitely is fantastic. Tennis is Michelle’s favorite sport.

If you read Obama’s biography, he played tennis a lot more than he played basketball, but then he had a very bad experience [at the Punahou School in Hawaii], where the coach said something very bad to him, very racial: “Don’t touch the draw sheet with your hand, you’ll make it dirty.” You don’t see tennis mentioned one more time in his book—you only see basketball.

Arthur Ashe and I used to talk about how our sport needs to be more hospitable. I used to live in Hawaii, and used to practice at the Punahoa School, and Obama and his friends would watch. [Years later] I asked, “Why didn’t you ask me to hit with you?” He said, “You would have?” I said, ‘Absolutely!’

When I heard [about Obama’s racist experience with tennis], I was not a happy camper. When I was young, Perry T. Jones [the head of the Southern California Tennis Association] wouldn’t let me in the photo of my first tournament. He said, “Little girl, you can’t be in the photo because you’re wearing shorts.” Well, I had never seen a tennis dress until that day, so I didn’t know. When I read the story about Obama, I said, “Oh, that sounds familiar!” And Arthur Ashe, I bet he had a couple stories. [BJK’s partner Ilana Kloss interjects, “Obama’s a bit of a wuss. He went away—you didn’t!”]

Michelle, the president, and their children are active physically. It sets a good example.

Their daughter Malia plays varsity tennis.

Great. I bet her mom made her. Michelle plays all the time.

Some say there’s still a minority that’s prejudiced.

Doesn’t matter. It’s vocal. Think about what Mr. [Richard] Williams’ life was like as a boy. That generation, they don’t forget.

Have you had any discussions with the Williamses about Venus and Serena not going to Indian Wells?

No, I wish I could. Maybe I should. I did want to try to sit down with them. Maybe now that would be good, since a little time has passed. I’d just ask about their feelings. But I think they’ve kind of made a pact. I know it really hurt their feelings, terribly.

Is tennis still considered an upper-class white sport?

At the top, but over 70% of people who play tennis play at parks, like me, Arthur, and Jimmy [Connors] did. And the club where John McEnroe grew up, I’ve seen parking lots nicer than that club. Most people who play at parks are funny as heck, they’re pretty hospitable. [Growing up, at the parks] We couldn’t play without an adult. I used to sit eight hours to play one hour. I love listening to stories. I learned about Bobby Riggs and all these different people, and felt closer to them. Those are things kids [today] don’t get. We need mentoring. We need players to not just have their entourage around them, never talking to or listening to other people. That isn’t very fulfilling. By the time they retire, they’ll look back at each other and say, “Now what? What am I going to do with my life?” They’re lost.

Has there been forward growth in the sport, or is there a discriminating sensibility at its core?

We’ve made an effort to be open. More and more children are multicultural, which is great! Stop labeling people! I hate to say the word multicultural, because a person’s a person.

If you could change one thing in tennis, what would it be?

I would like tennis to be bigger. Are you kidding? We could help the growth of our sport. We’re worried. We’re not doing well.

We don’t have a pipeline. I don’t know how it would have worked, somebody else would have filled my shoes. Everyone is unique. I like leading. I have one big thing left in me: leadership.

You’ve said you’d like to see men’s matches at Slams be best-of-three sets.

We make our guys play three out of five, which is horrendous. We’re wearing our top guys out. I hate it. Everyone says, “Billie, you want that because [the women] play three sets.” No, I want the men to stay in the game longer. I wanted Sampras to play longer. Roddick retired at 30. I want them in until they’re 35 or 40, if they love to play.

They [don’t] play that long anymore. They have enough money and they’re exhausted … It’s killing them. You only have so many miles in your legs. This sport is so physically demanding now. You need aerobic, and anaerobic for quickness. When I see men play over four, five, or six hours, I’m going, “Oh, great. That’s another year off their careers.” Golf’s lucky, because their oldies can play. Once we get to know our players, we don’t want them to leave. Every time one of our players retires, I go “Oh no, I can’t believe so-and-so isn’t playing anymore.”

Talk about America’s new Sloane generation, all our new young woman players.

We need the pipeline. We’re hurt. We need some boys. It would be interesting to see what’s inspired them … It’s also a tribute to Serena and Venus. If you are a little girl today, they are the inspiration. For any child in the world.

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