Source: USA TODAY
Billie Jean King was an athlete first. Quickly, she became a champion, many times over. She had a remarkable tennis career.
But that was not enough, not nearly enough, for BJK, as she came to be known.
She championed sports being opened to women, being covered by the media, gaining a foothold in the marketing/advertising/business world. She became a businesswoman.
“We just don’t have enough women in every area of decision-making,” King tells USA TODAY Sports.
She is an activist. She fought for equal pay for women athletes and for gender equality not only in sports but in all workplaces. King stood for acceptance of people regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.
She remains a promoter, especially of tennis as a team sport to engage the next generation of players and fans.
The dynamo, who will be 70 in November, did all this ground-breaking work while a touring professional, winning 12 grand slam singles titles, 39 grand slam events in all, including a record 20 at Wimbledon, and becoming the first female athlete in any sport to earn more than $100,000 in a season ($117,000 in 1971).
The titles, though, were not the end game for King.
“I really cared about getting tennis from the amateurism, shamateurism days to professional. That was probably one of the most difficult things ever,” she says. “There were some very lonely times.
“When the nine of us (broke away from the tennis establishment (and) signed $1 contracts with (tennis promoter) Gladys Heldman back in 1970, when it was the birth of women’s professional tennis, then the other players ostracized us. The political people (in the tennis hierarchy) didn’t want us. They were threatening that we wouldn’t be able to play the U.S. Open. … We went through some really hard times. Thank God for Virginia Slims (sponsoring a women’s tour). The stars got in alignment.”
King never shied from standing up for what she believed in, despite the cost. She learned the “discipline of not giving up” at a young age from her parents.
“As a child I used to always go up to the map and say, ‘I want to travel there,’ King says. “So when we started women’s professional tennis … the dream was, any girl born in this world, if she was good enough, she’d have a place to play and make a living. And that was our dream. And guess what? Now they’re living it.”
Having the opportunity. That has been the mainstay of King’s beliefs. Women having the opportunities men had. But thinking of the men, too.
“When I was 12 and I had that epiphany, basically, what it came down to, I was going to spend the rest of my life fighting for equal rights and equal opportunities for boys and girls, men and women,” she says.
Team tennis the way to go for kids
When she played and defeated a man, albeit an older man, in a 1973 extravaganza, it was a defining moment — for all women.
“People still know me mostly because I played Bobby Riggs,” King says. “It was about social change. Boys and girls have grown up seeing the world through men’s eyes. I was playing against a man and all of the sudden every media was interested because it was about them. And that’s the way the world is.”
Wanting to change that was part of the reason King co-founded World TeamTennis in 1974, again while an active player.
“I remember thinking about my sport and you know, everyone wears white shoes, white socks, white clothes. We play with white balls. Everybody who plays tennis is white. And when I was 12, the question I asked myself was, ‘Where’s everybody else?’
“Then I started thinking, ‘I wish tennis were a team sport. Because basketball was my first love, and I liked softball and baseball, football. … And I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish tennis were a team sport. I really miss being on a team. Maybe some day I can help change the sport. I want to make the sport popular.’ “
WTT is a summer league of teams — the upcoming season with eight, from Boston to Sacramento — composed of tennis professionals from the men’s and women’s tours.
“I’m totally prejudiced. I believe in World Team Tennis. I believe in the men, women all on the same team,” King says. “I believe that there’s excitement. If you don’t like tennis, if you come to a World Team Tennis match, I think we can get you excited about us … because it’s their team, we belong to their community.”
Venus Williams and retired men’s star Andy Roddick are on board as part-owners, giving King hope that WTT can carry on without her.
“Andy has a really good business head. So does Venus,” King says. “I’ve gone to sponsor meetings with the Women’s Tennis Association (King was its first president) and I’ve seen how she cares about children through the years. … It’s great to have them on board now because they’re coming up with strategies and ideas, and that’s what we want. And they know the players. … There’s commitment there. They’re truly part-owners.”
WTT starts off being about tennis, but it is much more than that. King explains her fervor for WTT – and the paths that can take beyond tennis.
“I know the team tennis part of the U.S. Tennis Association has grown 25% this last year — which I think is huge — for the kids,” King says. “We need to get more children playing in tournaments. That’s one of our challenges. But I’ve always been a big believer that when we get a child to sign up for tennis that we put them on a team. And they do skill drills together. They do practice. We get rid of the word ‘lesson.’ And I’ve been preaching this, what am I, probably about 50 years.”
Hardships on and off the court
Her fight in sports has not been without hardship.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, as she began trying to engage male tennis stars to step up for the women’s game, “These same men that we would go dancing with and be friends with rejected us,” King says. “Some of our guys said, ‘They won’t even go across the street to see you play. They won’t even pay you a dime.’
“And that’s very hurtful when these guys are your friends. So that was a really painful time, to have that disconnect. Because as a girl, as a woman, you know, we like to connect. Very girlie stuff, and that’s who I am, that part of me.”
So when she attends WTA meetings the first thing she tells the players is, ” ‘You’re living our dream.’ That makes me so happy. Because I see the big money, I see the big recognition, the appreciation. I love it.”
She also loves seeing society “at a tipping point that gay rights are the civil rights of the 21st century. … It’s been one by one by one, people coming out on their own terms,” King says. “Not being outed.”
King was outed in May 1981.
“My galimony case, not coming out when I was ready, was a real hardship,” King says. “You know, my lawyer and my publicist didn’t want me to come out with the truth, that I had an affair with a woman. And so that was really hard. I think that’s taken me the longest, to be comfortable in my own skin. It took probably until I was 51.
“But in ’81, with Martina Navratilova coming out, it was a tough time. You know, I lost all my endorsements in 24 hours. And now I know Jason Collins hopefully will get some new endorsements because he’s come out and shown how courageous and brave he is. … When gay rights becomes a non-issue, the LGBT community can exhale.”
‘Boot camp’ her idea for youth
Her mother is still alive, and King remains close to her brother, Randy Moffitt, 64, a former major league pitcher primarily with the San Francisco Giants.
“I’m very fortunate that we’re so close,” King says. “I’m lucky to have Ilana Kloss, my partner in life. So things are really good for me. The tough part is caregiving for parents. My mom’s still alive, and Ilana’s mother is still alive. … Everybody that I talk to that’s old enough has this issue now.”
King is a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, which met with President Obama in the Oval Office on May 7. “He was telling me (his daughter) Malia is on the tennis team at school,” says King, who is passionate about Americans needing to address their health.
“We have got to get into prevention. Nutrition, exercise — America has to stay strong,” she says. “If I could just wave a magic wand, every high school graduate — or when you get to 18 — would have to go to boot camp for eight weeks. And then you can go to college, go travel, do whatever you want if you have the means to do that. … Because we need to be disciplined in this country. We need Americans to stay strong, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”
Athlete. Champion. Businesswoman. Activist. BJK has spent a lifetime leading the way.
“If you watch a World Team Tennis match, you see my philosophy on life, because we’re all in this world together, and I want equality for everyone,” King says. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you have a disability. I want you to have the same rights and opportunities. That’s it. It’s real simple.
“Will we ever get there? Probably not. But if I can help move the bar forward even an inch, then it’s been a great lifetime.”
Some quick volleys with Billie Jean King
What’s the one thing you’re terrible at? – “I procrastinate. I have to really work on it. … See, that’s why I pay people to help me. … If I didn’t have them, I would not make it. If I didn’t have that support team in my life I wouldn’t even come close because I love to just dream and think and throw grenades of ideas. And they get me focused.”
What book is on your nightstand? – “I’m reading the Feminine Mystique. And I love biographies. Right now Thomas Jefferson is on my brain. I love history. I love all that. I just appreciate people who came before me. And I think it helps us shape the future. And Patsy (Patricia) Cornwell. Anything she does, I read.”
What will never go out of style? – “Love. That’s easy.”
What’s your favorite app? – “Safari. For sure. Why? Ahhhh, you can look up anything. I love it. I’m always wanting to learn. I love to learn. I think the three most successful things in the world are keep learning, relationships are everything and be a problem-solver — and you’ll usually have a pretty good life.”
What’s the one food you detest? – “Mussels. I don’t like the texture.”
What’s the next “big” thing in tennis? – “The athletes every generation get better. Absolutely get better. I think the apparel gets better all the time, whether it be shoes, whether it be the fabrics they use; the compression always helps. All these things help high performance. The rackets, they’re always looking for the edge. Lately it’s the strings. Engineers are working all the time to give you an advantage, particularly for grassroots players. I’m a grassroots player now. And I can tell you this newer equipment is fabulous. I love it.”
If you had played with the rackets available today? – “If I could hit one ball like Venus Williams does or like Roger Federer or Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal or any of these players, I would just be thrilled. I would think I had gone to heaven.”