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'A Clear Signal That Everything's Not For Sale:'
USTA Names Tennis Complex After Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King quote
In a material world where money doesn't just talk, it shouts, most all sport venues cash in and go for lucrative naming rights deals with big corporations. But Aamerican tennis (well, the USTA) has gotten it right, not once, but twice. After naming its main U.S. Open Stadium after Arthur Ashe in '97, the USTA Board this July unanimously chose to shun a corporate connection. Instead, the public park which is the home of the U.S. Open, will be named for the human rights advocate Billie Jean King. "It's obvious this is not your typical naming deal," said Arlen Kanterian, the USTA's Chief Marketing Executive. "It's also obvious that Billie Jean King is not your typical champion. That's what went through our minds immediately. In this day and age of naming rights and venues, this is a clear signal that not everything is for sale. This was not about the money. This was about doing what was right...It was almost a no-brainer once our president Franklin Johnson mentioned it to the board."
Ashe and King are the two figures in tennis who have transcended the game. A man of renaissance ideas and actions, Ashe emerged out of the segregated South and often went to the inner city to help. He quietly, but passionately, called for race equality, educational initiatives, the rights of Haitian emigres, HIV/AIDS programs and awareness, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. King in word and deed has long called for equal rights and opportunity. The fireman's daughter was a product of Long Beach's public parks and was the heroine of the '73 Battle of the Sexes. And, one could say, she was to the women's rights movement what Rosa Parks was to civil rights.
King told IT, "My purpose in life is equal opportunity for boys and girls, men and women. So every day when I wake up I first thank God that I'm alive and then secondly say thank you for letting me win that match [against Bobby Riggs in Houston]. After people calmed down, it helped change the minds and hearts of people and how they thought about girls and women...It brought men and women together more. Men watched that and became what I call the first generation of men of the women's movement. These men come up to me every single day and thank me for that match because now...they raise their daughters and sons very differently than they would if they had not seen that match. So both men and women were highly affected. We're both in this world together. It helped Title IX as far as changing minds and hearts. Minds and hearts always take longer [to change] than legislation."
As for the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, BJK said, "I know it's tangible. I know there's a focus now. Being a woman I'm very proud. I wanted to send a message and [I think it will] have an echoing effect, particularly for girls and women. They need to dream big, go for it and [know] that anything is possible, because I never in a trillion years thought that this would have happened to a woman, only to a man. For me, personally, I'm off balance. To be honest, I really haven't come to terms with it."
The move to name the National Tennis Center was in the air for a good while thanks to the likes of Tennis Week magazine, Bud Collins, et al. And this publication first called for King to be honored in '99 and again last April. But, it was USTA president Johnson who made it an action item and lobbied hard to make it happen.
Ironically, Johnson, a San Diegan who played tennis at UCLA, is a product of the Southern California Tennis Association, which was originally molded by Perry Jones, the strong willed boss who famously kicked a young King out of a group photo because (God forbid) she was wearing shorts. BJK remembered, "I call it 'the day of the shorts.' My mother was horrified...[But] I said to her, 'Don't worry, mom, he'll be sorry some day'...He was tough, he did favor the boys. He only gave the boys money and no money to girls. That was a tough time for girls in Southern California. Obviously, that is not the case today with the SCTA. That has been corrected."
Ashe and King, who had their differences, were also dear friends. Both won the singles championships at Wimbledon in '75. Both coached our national teams and both were outspoken, unafraid critics of the USTA. There was a day, years ago, when Ashe's criticisms of the then ingrown and plodding USTA, were simply flicked away by the group's top brass with the dismissive phrase, "Oh that's just Arthur." And in '94 BJK told IT, "Everything the USTA has been worried about over the past two years has been to get their new logo out. Who cares about the logo...[The USTA] is all for perks, I mean they live very well...[But] it's very important for the USTA to embrace everyone in the game. That's something they never have had the ability to do: to be expansive in their thinking, to figure out how we can all contribute to this and go in the same direction...Maybe my generation can make a difference. I'm hopeful. It would be amazing if the culture of the USTA could change."
Clearly it has.

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