BILLIE JEAN KING: The Woman Who Changed Our Sport, Our Country and Our World

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Photo by Cynthia Lum

By Bill Simons

When told that Oscar-winner Emma Stone would be playing Billie Jean King in an upcoming movie, Venus Williams gushed and said, “There should be a movie about Billie Jean every year.”

From her first days as a feisty young player to her role as a Virginia Slims/WTA pioneer and the heroine of the Battle of the Sexes, it seems there’s been one considerable BJK chapter after another. Today, a major chapter in her life essentially came to a close. She and her partner Ilana Kloss announced that they had sold the majority stake of World TeamTennis to the owners of the Washington Kastles and the San Diego Aviators – Mark Ein and Fred Luddy.

World TeamTennis certainly has been an extraordinary 42-year whirlwind, with players from Rod Laver and Ilie Nastase to Martina Hingis and Nick Kyrgios. Without question the WTT has been a petri dish of innovations, but it never really caught on in a mainstream way. Breaking into tennis is tough. It helps if you’re backed by a billionaire and a big international bank. Billie Jean and Ilana were battlers who went from town to town and owner to owner and squeezed their tennis event into a small window right after Wimbledon. Now the league is down to just six teams, but those who experience World TeamTennis up front, whether they’re watching raw rookies, unknown players with triple-digit rankings, or aging veterans, know that even though it can be a bit hokey, it is always great fun. And it’s always wonderful to see, in such an individual sport, players coming together, as Billie Jean always hoped, as a team.

Even more than this, Billie Jean’s vision was always that men and women could compete together, and she certainly fulfilled that vision with great panache and success. Today the one and only Billie Jean reflected, with no real hints of nostalgia or remorse, about an absolutely delightful part of American tennis history. There’s been a book written about World TeamTennis. Now they should make a movie.

Speaking of movies, the heroic battler for social justice, Tom Joad, ends the movie version of “The Grapes of Wrath” by saying, “Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”

Today, Billie Jean, the world’s most famous fireman’s daughter, said, “Every time you hear music at a tournament – that’s because of us. Every time you see players hit balls into the stands – we started that. Nobody gives us credit, but we made [tennis] more fan-friendly. When you see a linesman standing at the back of the court, we started that, and we got such a hassle from the tennis community. Now everyone does it…[We]didn’t trademark our colored court, now they all have their colors – the ATP, the WTA, the US Open. It’s hilarious. We’re really the ones who were poached for being fan-friendly. I like it – we’ve been a huge influencer, even though we get no credit. We were the first ones to do…Hawk-Eye…We just keep pushing, because we want to make [tennis] fan-friendly. This is about getting more…people in the game…I’ve a very deep desire.”

That’s clear. She told us, “Fight for freedom. Every generation has to go through the same fight for freedom. I always think of freedom and equality as hand in hand – you cannot have one without the other. Why do you think [years ago] I chose the name Philadelphia Freedom? I love the word freedom. That was also the seed, the beginning of our country. The Native American Indians were there first, though.”

Inside Tennis then noted that in two of the last three Presidential election cycles, a woman fell short in an effort to reach the White House.

“I thought Hillary might make it this year,” Billie noted. “When I was a young girl, other people, particularly elderly women, would say to me that they’re not going to see a female president in their lifetime. I thought I might, with Hillary, but I’m probably not…I think we’re 104th in the world as far as women in government…It’s horrible. We’re at 19.8 percent women in the House and 20 percent in the Senate.”

So we asked the tough but obvious question, “Is there just a distrust of women in leadership?”

Without hesitation Billie said, “Absolutely. People just do not like us a lot of times, they don’t think we’re any good, there’s a lot of misogyny. There just is. I’ve lived it. It’s sad, because we’re losing. [Girls] are taught to be perfect. Boys are taught to brave. Neither one is fair. But no one is perfect. You can’t believe how many times women say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’…[On] a sports team, the girls are always saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ [But I say] ‘Stop it.’ I’ll say [to a woman], ‘What do you like to do?’ and they’ll say, ‘I’m no good, but x, y and z…’ Guys never do that. Because women were taught to be perfect, it’s never good enough. We’ve got to stop that. You should want women and men – all genders – to get in there and be a part of the solution…[But] we’re not cutting it. [You] have to decide what winning is. What’s your goal? You can’t just say ‘Win’ – what does winning mean? In TeamTennis we know what winning is – win the championship. It’s very objective. That’s the great thing about sports. It’s so objective.”

As for tennis, Billie insists it’s all about, “Local, local, local…[That’s] what makes it possible for young people to get close to these players. I got to see [the great African-American pioneer] Althea Gibson at the LA Tennis Club when I was 13. She’s one of my sheroes and [it’s] because I saw her…I knew what it took to be No. 1…’If you can see it you can be it,’ I thought. I had so much work to do.”

As for change in tennis, she said, “You can create new traditions. You don’t get rid of all the old. You figure out what you want to keep…Wimbledon has done a very good job. They keep their environment and attitude. They’re very innovative with tradition…We’re the opposite. Tennis is a great sport because it can be an individual or a team sport.”

As for her sale of TeamTennis, she noted, “I’m very big on passing the baton. I quit Fed Cup and passed the baton. Leadership is knowing when and if you can possibly pass the torch. Today is perfect. I’m still vital, Ilana’s still vital – this is when you want to do it. You don’t want to do it when it’s your last fume. This is exciting. Now we can be a part of the future.”

So, what about change? We asked.

Billie observed, “The culture doesn’t want to change. We’re very much stuck. They do little shifts that they think are so dynamic. We should focus on one or two things to grow the sport…We [should] think local, local, local.”

She noted that she’s helping build a tennis center in Chicago.[“That’s] how you get kids in. You save them. If there’s a high crime rate, you get rid of it. It’s a place for kids to go, it’s a social hub – it’s not just playing tennis, it’s relationship-building. Relationships are everything.”

We shared with Billie that we had heard that when she goes through airports people rush up and thank her. Others have shown her their diplomas or, of all things, their divorce decrees and thanked her for her willingness to go for it. We asked if there was a responsibility to being a leader.

“Absolutely,” she replied. “When I see my name up on the US Open facility, the National Tennis Center, I know that means responsibility. Don’t let up. Be grateful you have responsibility.” But she added that she “wasn’t big on autographs. I like going to talk to them and looking them in the eye.”

Everyone thinks of Billie as a huge feminist – yes, of course. But she doesn’t hesitate to give huge shout-outs to guys. She spoke of the legends Pancho Gonzalez and Tony Trabert and said, “When I was 12, I already knew they were the best in the world…[and] that they couldn’t play Wimbledon….I thought [it] was ridiculous.

But there has been nothing ridiculous about the legacy of a woman Bud Collins called “Mother Freedom.” After all, she transformed our sport, our country and our world.

Photo by Cynthia Lum
Photo by Cynthia Lum