GOING FULL CIRCLE
THE NEVERENDING STRUGGLE
FREEDOM IS NEVER REALLY WON
THE BILLIE JEAN KING INTERVIEW
During an interview with actress Emma Stone, Stephen Colbert suggested that talking tennis with Billie Jean King was like going to dinner with Julia Child or going to a concert with Paul McCartney. Fiercely curious, Billie’s a spitfire pioneer whose mind crackles. She probes and provokes, and is always a delight.
You’ve spoken about the core simplicity of tennis and how playing tennis is like shaping time and space.
Exactly. Every ball that comes over the net is different. You’re always looking for a solution.
There’s always something new, something fresh. Some say that tennis is a sport of body, mind and spirit all in one.
When you’re playing your best, your head, heart and guts are all right there. Most players don’t have all three integrated at once. The ones who don’t have all three don’t win big. Players don’t realize how often they only have one or two of those three working. You have to be aware of that when you’re playing. Roger sure has all three.
You’ve had two epiphanies – just after you started playing and then at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
One was that I wanted to be the best.
The first time I played, it was with Susan Williams in fifth grade after I asked her, “What’s tennis?” She said, “You have to run, jump and hit a ball.” I said, “Those are my favorite three things in sports.” She had money since her dad worked for Shell, so she took me to Long Beach’s beautiful Virginia Country Club, which is still there. After we played, I said to myself, “Tennis is nice, but I’m not going to be able to play. My parents can’t afford it.” Then a friend said, “There’s free coaching here every Tuesday with Clive Walker.”
Free! Now I’m cooking. So I go tell Mom and Dad, “I’ve got to get a racket.” Dad looks at me “Really?” I say, “Let’s go buy a racket, please!”
He says, “No, you’ll have to figure out how to get your own.” He always taught delayed gratification. He did that, too, with my first baseball bat when I was four or five. He cut out a paddle for me and would pitch to me. He challenged me, “Show me you absolutely love it.” He waited months. Today parents would wait a day or two.
Then he said, “I see now you love baseball.” So, I got a bat. He did the same thing with my racket. I had to go and get imaginary pseudo jobs with the neighbors. They were very sweet, they gave me a nickel, some dimes and quarters. I put it in a Mason jar. I got eight dollars and twenty-nine cents. I went to Brown’s Sporting Goods and asked, “What does $8.29 buy?”
“Oh, that’s manageable,” they said. And there it was, on the back shelf. It was like this wine purple color and the strings were purple, and the handle was purple. And I slept with that sucker. I loved it.
Right after you began playing, you had an epiphany about your future in tennis.
Yes. I found out what I was going to do with my life – my destiny.
That was your first revelation. Then what happened at the Los Angeles Tennis Club?
I was 12, all by myself near the stadium court, and I was thinking about everybody who plays sports. I came from basketball, baseball, Jackie Robinson and all that stuff. I was daydreaming about my sport. My whole perception was, tennis is really white shoes, white socks, white clothes, white ball.
And white people?
Everybody who played was white. I wondered, “Where’s everybody else?” Then I started thinking about inclusion. As a child, I always thought about being inclusive. We always made sure everybody was okay. Like if my brother [the ex-baseball player Randy Moffitt] and I were choosing teams, if you were the worst kid, we’d pick you. It was an instinct in us both. We protected all the neighborhood kids from the bullies. I don’t know where I got it. It must have been from my mom and dad.
Wow. So even as a 12-year-old you sensed that you’d work for equality?
Basically, I was just trying to include everybody, because nobody wants to be excluded. I thought about all that. Being a girl made me very sensitive to it, even though I’m a white girl.
Nelson Mandela said that even more than government and politics, sports has the power to bring people together.
I see that a lot, but what bothers me is that the women’s movement didn’t ever include us enough. I tried to wake them up and told them, “You should use us more.” We were rarely invited to their seminars and meetings. I don’t remember them ever saying, “God, come on over. Gloria [Steinem] is speaking, or Betty Friedan is coming.”
The latest manifestation of the feminist movement is he #MeToo movement.
It’s for boys too. Here’s another thing that’s irritating. If women start a movement, it’s thought to be for women. Why? It’s for people. They do that to keep us in a market place half as big. If a guy starts something, he doesn’t start it for men, he starts something, period.
They do it all the time to us. Ask your sisters. [Simons has five sisters.] People say, “Thanks for everything you do for women’s tennis.” They never say to a guy, “Thanks for all you do for men’s tennis.” Never! They never give us credit for trying to help. They don’t get us. If you’re a leader, you’re a leader. It doesn’t matter.
The #MeToo movement was started by women because we are second-class citizens…Still, when a man is abused, he has the right to tell his story as well. Men need to tell their stories.
Andy Murray’s mother Judy noted that there is a long history of abuse in tennis and called for an organization to deal with abuse in all of sports.
Yes, for sure. But how? Is she going to try and do it?
No, guess who she suggested should lead it?
[Laughter] Really? I will have a little chat with Judy. Maybe. The association should have an independent council or something like that. The players are the worst – they won’t talk about abuse.
There was a good doubles player from a while ago who won’t talk about it.
It was her coach. I know who it is. There are all kinds of kids with coaches like that. I can’t talk about it, because they don’t want to talk about it. But they have to talk about it. They need to be leaders. I don’t know if they will. This is an interesting proposition from Judy.
There has been a lot of talk about this, going back to the horrible abuse by the South African doubles player Bob Hewitt.
That was terrible. Mary Carillo got him in that HBO show. Did you see that?
Yes. it was wonderful.
She was standing at his gate, calling out “Mr. Hewitt?” [but he refused to answer]. I actually played mixed doubles with him and asked him, “I heard rumors – is it true?” He said, “No, of course not.” This is back when I didn’t understand anything. Then his wife said, “No, no, no, it’s not true.” She’s as bad as he is. But I didn’t know that.
But I’ve learned with education and therapy about the new ways of understanding abuse – oh, my god! With Bob, something didn’t feel right, so I stopped playing with him. My instincts were right. I just didn’t feel comfortable.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Open tennis. Talk about the one prime change in the game. Does it relate to gender or women?
Everyone puts me there. You guys all put me there. I don’t think like that at all. I grew up with a brother. I didn’t grow up with a sister. Team tennis has been my passion. No, no. I think about everybody. That’s why I said, men need to talk about their abuse too. Everyone talks about these things only with women. I don’t.
As important as feminism is, you know what? It’s also a challenge for a man to grow up in this era –
Every guy should be a feminist. It’s good for everybody.
That’s why Andy Murray is so good.
Is there anybody besides him? [The little-known British player] Liam Broady is good. He grew up with a sister. See, that really helps when there is a boy and a girl. My brother is a real feminist because of that. He grew up around me, seeing how hard I worked. He knew how much harder it was for me. He says, “Sis, all I have to do [as a baseball player] is show up at the five o’clock bus. Everything else is taken care of. You have to arrange your own plane, do your own wash, and do so much, while I just have to show up.”
I love how you love your brother.
Yes, I love him.
So the question is the one thing that’s changed the most in the Open Era. When you won Wimbledon in 1968 you won a whopping 750 pounds.
Rocket [Laver] got two thousand, so, that’s almost two-thirds more. But everything has changed. The equipment, the coaching, the technique are much better.
Now everybody who is good enough and has enough money has an entourage to help them. Roger and Nadal are two perfect examples of having all the necessities. It’s the journeymen who are struggling all the time. But I don’t think struggling hurts you. It’s good to struggle a bit.
In many ways tennis is a meritocracy.
If you get a chance, you’ve got to prove it.
Let’s talk about the National Tennis Center being named after you. It’s such an honor. How did you find out?
The USTA President Franklin Johnson called me at a Philadelphia Freedoms team tennis match at Cabrini University. It was really loud and I said, “I’ll have to call you back.’ So I call him back and he says, “Billie, I’m so happy. I’m from Southern California, you’re from Southern California. We’re going to name the facility after you.” I said, “I didn’t hear you right.”
“Yes, you heard me right,” he says. “We’re going to name the facility after you. I’m so proud, because you’re from Southern California, and I can do this for you and with you.” I couldn’t even talk, I was speechless. I was like, “Really?” I thought, considering all we’d been through with the USTA and all the challenges in the early ‘70s –
What were the challenges?
When pro tennis came in, I wanted the USTA to do a tour, because promoters were getting rid of women’s tournaments. Men kept rejecting us. So I kept asking the USTA, “Would you start a tour for us or at least have a few tournaments, because we will have no tournaments?” But they kept saying no.
Then, finally, two minutes before we signed that one-dollar contract with Gladys [Heldman], I said to the USTA President Alastair Martin, “I don’t want you to have to read about this in the papers, but if you are still willing to do a tour, as I’ve been asking, then we won’t sign this.”
He goes, “Don’t sign that. If you do you’ll never get to play again. But in any case, we will not give you a tour.”
I said, “Alastair, you’re leaving us no options.”
We said to Gladys, “Give us contract money. Make us contract pros.” But she said, “I don’t have any money.” I said, “Do you have a dollar each?” She said, “Sure.” I said, “It’s symbolic, just give us a dollar. It’s still just as binding.” Then she gave us each a dollar bill and a contract and everybody lined up, just like in the movie. The USTA sent us a telegram that said, “You can’t play…You won’t play Fed Cup and won’t get a ranking.” So, when I think about that, and then I think about that whole facility being named for me…Every time I walk in I say to myself, “It been a full circle for me.”
Do you know how we first got equal prize money?
No, please explain.
The old Forest Hills tournament director Billy Talbert and I were in this tiny hut they had near the stadium court in 1972, and I told him the women wouldn’t come back the next year if we didn’t get more money. He was just a great guy – I loved him. I had said to the Virginia Slims people, “If I go to him to talk about equal pay, I have to take something we can give back to him.” Then I said to myself, “What if we can take the difference in the prize money and get a sponsor?” We were feeling pretty good, because Philip Morris was really behind us. That gave us a lot of confidence. Then Bristol Myers also said, “We’ll give you your money.” Plus we had a survey that was, even back then, pretty favorable about women getting equal prize money. I brought two things to the table, money and information from the survey. And we had a sponsor.
And Billy looked at me and said “Really?” He was in finance and one of the old-boy NYC cronies and he was married to a really rich woman. He thought, “That’s pretty awesome that they got that done before they even came here,” and he said, “I guess we’ll take that under consideration.”
But he didn’t take the issue before the USTA board. He just made the decision to give us equal prize money. I think the reason was because we brought in the money – money talks.
Now let’s talk about the USA these days. There are some who have fears for our country.
Don’t even get me started.
But do you feel that our freedom or our democracy is in any way under threat?
You always have to think that – certainly. It’s never-ending. Every generation has to fight for it. I always use this quote from Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” You cannot let up, ever, ok? On freedom, equality and all of those things, I totally agree with Coretta Scott King.
It’s just like playing tennis, you never let up, because once you let up, you never know. You never know if you’re going to win until you’re shaking hands at the net.
Let’s do a lightning round. I’ll give you a word or phrase and you tell me what comes to mind.
The nickname “Mother Freedom”?
Probably best ever.
My she-ro. She’s the Jackie Robinson of tennis.
Love Jimmy. He’s one of the greatest competitors ever.
“Pressure is a privilege.”
One of the greatest of all time – very religious.
Great. She’s really important not only as a player but as a leader for equal prize money.
The great Brazilian Maria Bueno, whom we just lost.
Bobby Riggs helped women’s tennis. [Laughter]
Mr. Jack from LA.
Jack [Kramer] and I made amends. I don’t know if people realize that.