Billie Jean King on Democracy, Race and Reconciliation

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The BJK Interview – Part II

Bill Simons

The Battle of the Sexes was truly a unique event. It was part circus, part grudge match…

You know why the Battle of the Sexes was huge? After that, you couldn’t get on a tennis court. That match changed everything. Everyone started to play, and that meant more fans. Women would go to the market in their tennis skirts. Our sport had so much going in the United States. We had over 50 events. Team Tennis once had 16 teams. We don’t have that anymore, and it’s hurt America’s prestige in the sport. The big guys like Roger and Rafa have the power in the ATP and in the media. 

America desperately needs a male champion. I love Seb Korda, and I wish Frances Tiafoe would break through. Everything I think about is whether it helps the sport. We need more money for the grass roots to develop a pipeline to the pros.

We still have to figure out how tennis can attract the really good athletes.

What you do is take one or two kids off the soccer or basketball team. You look at the kids with hand-eye coordination and timing. The first thing I look at is striking ability. It’s like baseball – if you can’t hit the ball you’re not going to make the team.

You always think about both genders. What’s your message to men?

Men have been great allies to me. Without them I’d never have had the life I’ve had. I want men to stay allies to all of us. Without [Phillip Morris chief] Joe Cullman, we wouldn’t have what we have today.

Every time I see Osaka or Venus get a big check or women have tournaments or get equal prize money, I think it all goes back to the Original 9, and our hopes and prayers for future generations and our willingness to sacrifice our careers and to maybe never play again. Our hope was that our new circuit would allow any girl in the world who was good enough a place to compete, that women would be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only our looks, and, most important, to be able to make a living playing tennis. Those three things came true because of the courage Gladys Heldman and the Original 9 had when we did that $1.00 rebellion and signed our contracts.

One of the Original 9, Christie Pigeon, said they had more impact than the feminists, because they showed they were as interesting as men. Judy Dalton said none of them realized what an unbelievable thing it would end up being.

We were scared to death it wouldn’t happen. If we didn’t make it happen quickly we could have been obliterated pretty quickly. We were fortunate the stars aligned with Gladys and the tournament people, who in 1971 were willing to take a huge risk on a women’s tournament.

In your book you talk about Mandela befriending his prison guards. You and Bobby Riggs were fierce foes, yet you became friends, and just before he died you had a poignant exchange with him, when you shared your love for each other. At an Olympic dinner, you even reconciled with the great Jack Kramer, whom you admired, but said “got in your way a lot.” You asked him, “Can we start over?” What’s the importance of  reconciliation?

It’s very important to look at the good of everyone. It allows you to move on. Forgiveness, love and kindness allow you to keep moving and to not keep using negative energy. You want to use that positive energy. I’m very good at letting go. The only time I use negative energy is when I’m goading myself. It works for me. It probably worked for hotheads like McEnroe and Connors. It helps us find more energy to get going and be more focused.

Should tennis allow players to show more expression and let their personalities come out?

Absolutely!

The former head of Canadian tennis said the worst two words in tennis are, “Quiet, please!”

Get rid of it. The establishment hated us. They should’ve embraced us.

There have been advances in women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community…

We’re going forward, but we have a long way to go. There are a lot of poor men, too. There’s a lot of poverty, and we’ve got to get away from the idea that the guy has to be the breadwinner all the time.

Talk about racism and violence.

Anti-racism is really important. We all have to keep being anti-racist. We have to – and I mean everybody. Today you see everybody marching together. That’s symbolic of where the world is going. We have to stand up for each other, no matter our color. We need to always think that we’re all humans. 

I think Blacks may not agree with this, but we’re humans first – we all bleed red. I’ve fought for women of color. I remember telling Gladys Heldman, “We’ve got to have girls of color on tour. We cannot have this be a white-white thing. And we did have Rosie Casals. I hope we’re now creating a culture where they feel they can belong.

You’ve spoken about Coretta Scott King’s contention, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”

I have that quote on my bathroom cabinet, so I always see it. She talks about it always being a struggle.

So do you think that in some ways our democracy could be in some danger?

Absolutely. I think it is in big danger.

Our godchild Sky told me that in his school they were talking about democracy and saying maybe it’s going to have to look different. And I went, “What?” and thought I had to pay attention. It’s about their future. 

I asked him, “Don’t you think it’s always going to work?” And he said, “You know, it might not work the way it is now. We’re talking about it.” I listened and took it to heart and now with all these things happening, I’d say we are in a very precarious position with democracy. 

As a nation we have to work toward making sure that our democracy is in good shape. This is the weirdest thing to ever happen. I never thought it would be quite like this.We had the best middle class in 1980 and our country was strong because of it. One hundred percent  of our recent growth was to the top 10%. Our country is strong when we have a strong middle class.

You said you have to ultimately look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Who am I, and what’s my legacy?”

I always tell kids, “Pretend you’re 70 and ask, What do you want to say about yourself? Are you happy with yourself, did you give it a go?” It’s kind of a wake up call, it picks you up: like, pay attention, have integrity, do what you like. I always ask kids, “What’s your dream?” I really try to get them to think about it, because time goes by really fast. You wake up and go, “Oh my God, I’m 70, what happened?”

You said that life is a series of sprints. You’ve had so many wonderful chapters. Which of them resonates most with you?

It’s always the people. I was totally in love with [my former husband] Larry. Ilana [Kloss], is obviously the love of my life now.

Ilana and you have had an extraordinary relationship. You’ve done so much.

And we’re not done yet. Plus, it’s my parents, my teachers. It always goes back to people who championed me. I wasn’t No. 1 in the juniors. I wasn’t the poster child.

That certainly was the case when you were forced out of the closet by that palimony suit by Marilyn Barnett in 1981. Your descriptions of what you called “sexual McCarthyism” were compelling. But a lot of people also supported you, and you’ve had so many great relationships – Elton John, Chrissie Evert, Martina…

Our sport wasn’t going in the right direction when Chris and Martina came around. I don’t know what would have happened to us if we didn’t have the two of them. They arrived at a time when we needed them the most. That was just amazing. They’re great people.

This has been wonderful, Billie. Thanks for everything. I’m sure people will love your book.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Bille Jean King has always been my hero. I have tried to emmulate her, listen to what she says and pass on all that I can. She has been an inspiration to so many and is still fighting the fight. We need more like her.

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