The Billie Jean King Interview

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SPA026055059.jpgINSIDE TENNIS: There’s a story that a woman in Manhattan tells a taxi driver, “I have to go out to Queens and meet Billie Jean King. When the taxi driver asks how to get there, she says, “Well, there’s a big brick building that has her name on it.” Is that true?

BILLIE JEAN KING: It was one of the sponsors coming out to the suite.

IT: What is it like to have your name up on the tennis center, to have such fame? What is that lifestyle like?

BJK: It’s a sense of responsibility. It’s our job to go for it.

IT: Let’s look at some numbers: You sign up for $1 with Gladys Heldman, 30,472 show up at the Astrodome, Venus Williams wins $1.4 million in equal prize money at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova signs a $70 million deal with Nike…

BJK: Seventy million what?

IT: Her contract with Nike.

BJK: Seven zero?

IT: Seven zero.

BJK: Great. Love it. Look at what basketball and baseball players make. I’m thrilled.

IT: Holly Hunter says because of you she and others actresses make up to $25 million per film.

BJK: It’s not because of me. Psychologically, it didn’t hurt.

IT: Which of those numbers sticks out most for you?

BJK: I’m thrilled about the money, but I don’t think about the money. I do think about the money if there’s a message — like with equal prize money. I kept telling Venus, it’s about the message. The message is important because 60 percent of girls in this world are not getting educated. You’ve got all this poverty. Any time a woman is in poverty, it means her boys and her girls are in poverty. So microfinancing is important. It sends a message of equality, and I want equality for everybody. For instance, we don’t have enough men going to college now. That’s a challenge here. But overall, the challenge is still girls and women because we’re so underserved. That’s what [Bill] Clinton’s Global Initiative emphasized again this year.

IT: Speaking of things global, what do you think of the WTA Championships going to Doha?

BJK: I think it’s great. Anytime we go to a new place, it’s good for them to see these women producing and making this kind of money. I went to Doha and wanted to do a clinic for the boys and girls. They only allowed the girls to do it. You cannot believe how excited they were. They had some really good little players who could hit. I spoke to one of the mothers. Her daughter is lefthanded, which is sinister. She has lefthanded kids. She said, “I want my daughter to be a champion so it would help the stigma. [In Qater, the left hand is seen as the “dirty hand.”] The Sheikha [Hind Bint Hamad Al Thani] didn’t wear a veil — her face showed. She came out on court and presented the check [to Serena Williams]. That was huge. Unless you go there, you don’t know what’s going on.

IT: Frank DeFord once wrote that you and Jackie Robinson were the two most definitive athletes of the 20th century, but that Robinson needed someone to open the door for him; you had to break the door down on your own. Do you take pride in the path you’ve forged?

BJK: Absolutely. It started when I was 11 or 12. That’s when I decided I wanted to be No. 1. Those are very impressionable moments. They’ve done research on that. That’s when kids usually decide their dreams.

IT: When you were first breaking away with the women’s tour, someone said, “No one’s going to come out and watch those birds…”

BJK: I had a few of those guys, which was very hurtful, because they were my friends. If I didn’t feel close to them, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so taken aback. I thought that was pretty low. But I try not to take things personally. That really helps. That’s the only reason my name’s on the USTA National Tennis Center — I never took it personally. I really like these [USTA] people. I didn’t have to agree with them. Every two years, we have a new president, so we start over. My friends say, “Why are you so nice to them?” I say, “It’s not about them. It’s about what kind of character I have.”

IT: You started battling them as a player.

BJK: We all did. It wasn’t just me. I was definitely more forthright.

IT: But part of the USTA culture is “You know your place.”

BJK: But you try to change things diplomatically. The reason we got equal prize money in ’73 was Billy Talbert. I only had a quiet, one-on-one discussion. People think we were really boisterous. That’s not true. Ninety-five percent of it is behind the scenes. We were boisterous only when we didn’t have any other course to take. You have to be calm when you make decisions. You can’t make them when you’re too low or too high. Always try to get in the middle before you make an important decision. That wasn’t what the media or the public’s perception was. A lot of the great things we did were done in quiet settings. Even the $1 contract — that was at the little Houston Racquet Club. We were having these discussions day and night at Gladys’ home, which was just around the block from the club. I called the president of the USTA before that happened. One minute before we held up those $1 bills, I called the USTA president and said, “Are you sure you won’t do a tour? We don’t need to do this if you’ll do a tour.” I had been trying for two or three years to talk sweetly to them. They kept saying, “No.” Then they said, “You’re going to be ostracized. You won’t ever be able to play again in any of our tournaments.” I said, “You’ve left us no choice. But I want you to know that when you read about it tomorrow, I talked to you first. I don’t want to go behind your back.” That was a quiet time. That was on a pay phone at the Houston Racquet Club, not in front of 100 media people in a room with microphones up my nose.

IT: At the Battle of the Sexes, you really had the weight of history on your shoulders. Some said it was more pressure than a Wimbledon final.

BJK: For sure. It was a one-time thing. It transcended that match so much. So many things were involved. The emotions that men and women were feeling were just incredible — about themselves, about the opposite gender, about their children – it was at the right time in history. It was at the height of the women’s movement, we were just coming off Vietnam, Watergate was starting to heat up — it was a very tumultuous time. I guess God put me on Earth at the right time to be able to do that. Arthur [Ashe] and I were born the same year — in ’43. We asked ourselves, “Why?” It’s our destiny. It was meant to be. As a young person, I knew there was something special that was going to happen to me. I was seven years old when I told my mother I was going to do something great with my life. We didn’t have a dishwasher then. She said, “Dry the dishes and let’s go — you’ve got homework to do.” My mother always kept going. Little did they know. When my brother Randy and I started our dreams — me with tennis, Randy with baseball — they had three jobs. That was just to get us to a tournament. We didn’t have a lot of extra money. Those are the kinds of kids we need in tennis — blue-collar kids. The rich kids can go everywhere and get the points.

IT: You’ve said that Americans don’t realize how good they have it.

BJK: I don’t always agree with that. It’s your environment. If you grow up in my or my brother’s environment, you can make it. I think Americans have a great history of resolve. We have a history of adventure, conquering the frontiers. That’s always going to be in our DNA. We have to tap into the best athletes. I’ve listened to parents — especially of color — and they all say the same thing: “Go to the elementary schools and ask the football coach to give you the best two athletes at school and tell him you’re going to give this kid a life and an education.” People tell me this over and over. I’m going to listen to them because they come from a different place. I’m white. They’re worried about the children. They’re in the right place. You have to find the right schools. Where do they have really good athletes? Where do they have great basketball players? The inner-city. We don’t need a ton of them; we just need the best. Low-income kids and first-generation Americans. There’s something special about the way they’re brought up. It’s old school-new school. There’s something special about that — Agassi, Capriati, Sampras. I’m telling you, there’s something there. Don’t ignore it. It doesn’t mean a fifth-generation American can’t be great. But they’ve either got to come from a strict family — a family that was loving and strict, like my family. Chris Evert and I had the same thing. We had the best setup. Blue-collar family. She’s Catholic and I’m Protestant, but we might as well come from the same cloth as far as the way we were brought up.

IT: Can kids from the ‘burbs with BMWs and Xboxs and iPods make it?

BJK: Yes, they can. But you’ve got to get the kid who’s got the resolve. Like Ryan Harrison — he’s highly motivated. I want that kid.

IT: What about Sam Querrey and John Isner?

BJK: They’re great kids, but do you really expect them to beat everyone? I don’t. What I love about those two is that they’re getting the best out of what they’ve got, and that’s all you can ask.

IT: Can Ryan Harrison make it to the top?

BJK: I don’t know yet, but I’m very impressed with him. He’s got intensity, he loves it, and he’s got a well-rounded game. You’ve got to have a weapon eventually. I don’t know how quick he’s going to be. But I love what I saw. Prescott, Arizona’s got a little kid. Her dad came to me in the gym. He said, “I hate to bother you, but her name is Taylor Johnson, she’s 10-and-under. She will go out in the snow with layers on to play.” I said, “Can you come at three o’clock?” When I go back to Prescott, I’m going to go check her out. She sounds like a highly motivated kid.

IT: Where do you come down on the greatest of all time in women’s tennis?

BJK: Serena should be, but she’s not finished.

IT: Martina? Steffi?

BJK: Martina — singles, doubles and mixed. And Steffi in singles. That’s all I could ever say. The greatest all-around athlete is probably Martina. But we can’t compare our games. We couldn’t hold a candle to these kids today.

IT: You’ve met so many wonderful people. Who’s the most impressive?

BJK: Everyone’s got different plusses. Obama is a great listener. And kind. And he’s smart.

IT: You’re close with Hilary.

BJK: I’m not that close. She did ask me to help her [with her presidential campaign]. I did not have any relationships with Obama, although I lived in Chicago for 12 years. I can’t believe I didn’t meet him, because I helped the mayor with things. As soon as we met, it was like, BOOM.

IT: In many states, gay marriage is such a serious question. Your thoughts?

BJK: Civil unions are what I wanted everyone to vote on because you have to go in phases sometimes. It can go too far to the right or the left. Things don’t happen if people get too angry, too off-balance. If I could have done the game plan 20 years ago, I would have said, “Let’s get civil unions right because I want the law to protect us first. That’s the most important thing. We still have over 1,000 federal laws. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders who can get fired with no recourse. It’s getting better though. It’s definitely going in the right direction. People are always uncomfortable when there’s a fear or an unknown. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people just totally uncomfortable. Usually the people who yell the loudest have latent tendencies themselves and are scared, so they just go overboard. They protest too much. When I hear that hate, that’s when I go, “uh-oh.”

IT: You’re a close friend of John McEnroe’s. He loves tennis. Incredible talent, great mind, brilliant commentator, but at 51 he still has a dark side – losing it, chewing out Mashona Washington at a Word TeamTennis match…

BJK: I love John. He’s just got demons. But you have to understand his generation. It was pretty much whatever they wanted. They didn’t have to think too much beyond that. I like it when a player has skin in the game, and most do not. I’m talking about putting money back in the sport. There’s very few of us who’ve actually put our money back in the game. I’ve owned four tournaments. I own part of Indian Wells. I had to put up money for that. Sampras, Chris did too. But they were established. I’ve always put money in the game, but I’ve also made my living out of it, which has been fantastic. Butch Buchholz put money in. Newcombe and some of the other Aussies have put money in. But how many Americans do we have putting money back in the game? How much money do we take out of our prize money every year? What’s Federer up to – $57 million? That’s just the official amount. I like to see players give back to tennis, not other foundations outside of tennis. They think about their brand, their own thing. Then they do a foundation someplace else. I do the Women’s Sports Foundation, but at least it’s in sports. But I also do the Elton John AIDS Foundation. World TeamTennis has raised almost $10 million for them. Since ’68 I’ve been a small businesswoman in the sport of tennis.

IT: If you could watch just one player?

BJK: Nadal and Fededer are a cut above right now. They were both in soccer. I’m just so thrilled they chose tennis. They could have chosen soccer. We never would have seen them. We need to get soccer kids because they have good footwork and hand-eye coordination. If we don’t sign up kids on a team when they’re young, we’re never going to have our sport where we want it. And we need to have a format in college where we have 24,000 screaming kids and get it on TV like they do for March Madness. I can see it so clearly.

IT: Bud Collins said you were a prophet in the wilderness. Is that true?

BJK: Sometimes. I don’t always want to change things. You’ll never meet someone who loves tradition more than I do. But that’s why we change history — because we appreciate history, we appreciate tradition, we appreciate people’s ideas. It’s one thing to have an idea; it’s another to execute.

IT: Do you think Bobby Riggs would be happy about the way things are unfolding?

BJK: Bobby Riggs would still be contributing. Are you kidding? He was always contributing fun and liveliness and attention to our sport. How can you not love that? He was a character, but he was also a former No. 1. When I explain to people why I won that match it was because I respected him so much. But we’re in a tiny universe, a tiny little universe. Everyone thinks everybody knows us. No one knows who we are.

IT: But you’ve touched so many people.

BJK: I’m not finished. I still feel rarin’ to go.

IT: And your proudest accomplishment?

BJK: What I’ve done off the court because we keep passing the baton as we go down through life. After I’m gone, these things will have a life of their own. Each generation will build on them. That’s what makes me happy — equal rights and opportunity. There have been milestones and milestones. We went from amateurs to professionals. That was huge. I’m proud that it was my generation that did it. We are the transitional generation. Every day I wake up and say, “We did it.”

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