‘WE HELP CHANGE THE WORLD’ – The Billie Jean King Interview

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2035
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Bill Simons

On September 22, the movie “Battle of the Sexes,” about the most important match in tennis history, Billie Jean King’s over-the-top Astrodome battle against Bobby Riggs, will hit big screens. Inside Tennis recently discussed the Battle, the movie and more with King.

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It’s wonderful that in late September there’ll be a movie about the groundbreaking Battle of the Sexes. In 1973 the greatest hustler our game has known was desperately trying to get you to play him. Then on Mother’s Day you saw Bobby Riggs destroy Margaret Court. What went through your head at that moment?
Going down an elevator in Detroit, Margaret told me that she was going to play Bobby. I said, “Whoa! That’s not a tennis match – it’s much more.” I told Margaret, “You’ve got to win.” Women’s pro tennis was in its third year. We were in a tenuous position. Then when she lost I was beside myself. In my heart and mind I knew I had to play him – there was no wiggle room. I couldn’t let our sponsors, promoters and owners suffer – we were trying to build something.
1973 was pivotal. Title IX [for gender equality in college athletics] had just been passed and I didn’t want it weakened. I knew the match would touch peoples’ emotions about the opposite gender. It was about social change. I knew there would be ramifications. People would not just think about it, they would get very emotional about it. It was going to be deep and broad. There would be tremendous exposure. ABC stepped up, [producer] Roone Arledge put up $150,000 for the TV rights. Everyone was talking.
Plus, I had to play the Virginia Slims tournament in Houston the same week and do media. Plus, they didn’t even get the court down until 5 [p.m.] the day we played. So I pretended I was an actor, an understudy who had to be a quick study because they were going to call me. I said, ‘Be alert, be aware, pick up the nuances.’ I went to the Astrodome the night before and learned the different routes, where the limo would go, the fastest way to the locker room, and introduced myself to the security guards.
Bill, you know how I am. I’m a perfectionist – I have to know everything. The last thing an athlete wants is to be surprised. I like the pressure. I thrive on it. I knew I had to win and [I wondered] “What if I have a bad day at the office? What if I get injured?” Actually, it was a horrible match but who cares….


But Billie, what if you’d lost?
That could have put us back. People would have said, “Women don’t deserve to be pros – to get any money,” all the different things we were fighting for. It was hugely important for our tour and for future generations. I kept telling people three things: we wanted a place for women to compete; we wanted them to be celebrated for their accomplishments, not just their looks; and we wanted them to be able to make a living.
[Now] the younger generation says, ‘What do you mean – to make a living?’ They don’t understand what it was like. As amateurs we made $14 a day. We couldn’t make a living. Every year we played tennis, it actually cost us a year of earnings from some other craft or business. If you’re good enough, you should be able to make a living. For the nine of us, that was our goal. And now we have it. That match catapulted us.
The men didn’t even recognize how important the match was. They don’t like to talk about it. They thought it was a joke. But the joke was that you couldn’t get on a tennis court after that. 1974 was the first time the ATP and the WTA got huge network contracts. Did the men think they did that? Our match did it. Bobby and I did it. ABC did it, and promoter Jerry Perenchio he was brilliant. It took a lot of people to create those opportunities for everyone. You see the kids get the checks today, but you know that without certain things happening in the early ‘70s they wouldn’t be out there like that.
The guys got a very big jump because of the match as well. It just helped tennis. The match was a historic springboard for future generations. Look, I made $2 million in my career. Chris made over $10 million and Martina made over $20 million. You see that huge jump from the first generation to the second.

But Ion Tiriac just said that, except in Slams, there shouldn’t be equal prize money.
Well, he’s a guy and he’s rich, so he can say whatever he wants. He’s an Eastern European – they’re tough. They have a different culture. I would hope they could think about their daughters, but obviously they’re not clicking in there. [It’s different] when a guy thinks about his daughters, his sisters, nieces or friends.
At the cast luncheon for the movie, Austin Stowell who plays [Billie’s former husband] Larry, said, “Look, every person has a mother. I was raised by a single mother. Without her I would not be sitting here. She worked so hard for me to have a life.” That was brilliant. He gets it – lots of empathy.

How do you think women’s rights and the sensibility towards women in America compare to other Western cultures?
We still have a long way to go…Some companies only have 20% women on their boards. It’s been proven that when you have different cultures, different genders…it helps the bottom line. A lot of CEOs say, “I don’t believe it.” But anytime you exclude somebody you are making yourself and the group weaker. You need inclusion and equality. No one is born with equal opportunity, but every child has to think they have an opportunity to make it and believe they have equal rights. We have to figure how to lift up the poorer groups. Everyone has to get behind each person.

Speaking of inclusion, tennis has long honored the Aussie legend Margaret Court. But sadly, again and again, she’s gone out of her way to say things –
I don’t understand. To me it’s not very Christian-like. I was brought up a Christian and my job is to be kind and good. Acts of kindness really do add up over time. It sets a good example…She and I don’t have quite the same belief system. She’s done a disservice to herself…I don’t know, I have mixed emotions about her having her name on that court now. What do you think would happen, Bill, if she talked about people of color like that?


There’d be an outrage.
I feel I’m a citizen of the world.

Absolutely.
I’m a proud part of the LBGTQ community. It’s like don’t hurt my brother, my sister or people I care about. I don’t like it. I wouldn’t want you to do that to people of color or anybody. You know how I am. This is so unnecessary. This is not bringing the world together. We have enough fighting and judgment. It’s important to not judge others. I was totally religious as a young person and that’s the concept that jumped off the page for me – I hold it very close to my heart.

The only thing, Billie, is that when we put a person’s name on a stadium, it’s a place of honor and –
To me it’s a question mark.

So let’s talk about Emma [Stone].
She’s the greatest.


So vivacious and expressive. I know you’ve had a lot of contact with her.
She’s wonderful. We got along from day one. She’s just a great person. What I love about her is that she’s like a player, she wants to keep learning and wants to get better and better. That’s why we fit well – we’re the same. She’s from Scottsdale, I’m a Long Beach kid. We grew up in similar cultures.
She has my speech patterns down almost perfectly. At times it was eerie. When I was watching the movie, if I shut my eyes, I would’ve thought it was me.

Speaking of speaking, did you hear Roddick’s great Hall of Fame speech? He spoke of the long tradition of tennis players who sought social change.

I’m on his board and he’s on my board. He played for the team I own. Brooklyn is pregnant again – everyone’s excited.

And he told me his dog, Billie Jean, is doing well.
Billie Jean the dog is in great shape.

Great slobber! Anyway, he said tennis doesn’t get credit for all the social change it’s sought. Where does that come from? You could go back to the great American Alice Marble or –
It’s all about history. Alice taught me and I saw the 1950 letter she wrote [to American Lawn Tennis Magazine calling for tennis to integrate]. It was just beautiful. I saw Althea Gibson when I was thirteen – she changed my life. She was our Jackie Robinson. She was the first person of color to win a major.
In 1916 the USLTA banned people of color from tournaments. So African-American players formed the ATA (American Tennis Association). In 1938 Don Budge played an exhibition with African-American players. That started to break down barriers. We were thrilled this year that our Philadelphia Freedoms team could give the ATA our first Freedom Award.
Because of Arthur Ashe, tennis was the first sport to get behind HIV/AIDS awareness. We’re interconnected as a community. It’s fantastic. We have such a rich history in fighting for the right things. I went to an Agassi dinner when he was fighting for schools and Andy [Roddick] was there. He was just 18 and I said to [my partner] Ilana [Kloss], “Look, Andy’s here – that’s really a good sign.” It meant he was going to think about social issues.

Talk about your great foil, Bobby Riggs.
He finally got the attention he deserved, which is great. Everybody thought he was just a hacker. But he won the 1939 Wimbledon triple crown. World War II stopped him from winning a lot more titles. The Battle of the Sexes was his opportunity to be heard and appreciated. People don’t appreciate his past enough.
The reason I won is because I knew a lot about him and respected him. He knew very little about me. Sub-dominant groups usually know a lot more about dominant groups. I’m a woman – I’m part of a sub-dominant group.
Plus, look at my preparation. The day before, I went to the Astrodome.
It was a free-for-all – we didn’t have security. I had to really stay focused. Still, five minutes before the match, I went to a cocktail party and thanked [publisher] Gladys Heldman and [designer] Ted Tinling and everybody. Then the TV producer says, “You probably won’t do this, but will you get on that Egyptian litter [and be carried in by hunky, bare-chested guys]?” And I said, “Absolutely – let’s go.” I love showtime. He said, “Really?” “Yeah, let’s go!” It was fun – it went boom, boom, boom, boom – just like that!

You’ve said that there’s a similarity between your battle with Bobby and the Trump vs. Clinton election. Is there a similarity between Bobby and President Trump? Both are charismatic and their critics would say –
A little bit – but I think Bobby had more empathy. He had a heart, deep down. And when you see the movie, you’ll see that Bobby had many facets to him. [Actor] Steve [Carell] did a great job peeling the layers of the onion away – he captured Bobby. Elizabeth Shue, who plays his wife, was the greatest. Every single actor was A+. The New England Patriots have a saying – “Do your job.” Wow, did they!

The actors brought sports to acting and tennis players bring acting into sports.
Yes – I get upset when we’re not included in the arts. There are the arts, like ballet dancers, and there is science. And we tennis players are performers too. We help change the world.

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