An Audience With Billie Jean: Part II

Billie Jean King discusses her upbringing, the effect of tennis politics on her personal journey, and her ideas for making the game even bigger.

Published November 10, 2011 04:37

An Audience With Billie Jean: Part II
Billie Jean King


How did your upbringing shape who you became?
BJK: My parents should have brought up a lot of children. They were pretty strict and they gave us good morals. Just basic stuff. Be nice to people, be kind and be thankful and know you're blessed. Sounds corny, but that's what more kids need now, I think. I look at kids and they control the parents now. I mean, I did some things that were out of line… especially when I was tired. Also, my belief about professional sports was so strong, and I think it's because I grew up in a family watching the NBA, American football, major league baseball. Women's sports were so late getting into the marketplace, compared to the men. Knowing the possibilities really helped me step up.

What's the best piece of advice your mom ever gave to you?
BJK: That line from Hamlet: To thine own self be true. My dad said peace of mind... plus a lot of other things. They were full of instruction! I just think you have to have fire in your belly for whatever you do. Even if it isn't fun sometimes, you have to embrace it.

If you'd come along 20, 30, 40 years later, would you have been the same sort of person and player? Would you still find battles to fight?
BJK: In the beginning I was actually very shy, and I wouldn't have done any of it. But the players kept pushing me. One thing I've learnt is that 'followers' will actually guide a leader into a position. That's what happened in tennis for me… the other players said, You do it! You go represent us! I'd say, no, I'm shy, I'm embarrassed, I can't do this. They'd say, No, you're the one. They pushed me up to the front, and I realized, looking back, that that had been happening to me since elementary school. So I decided I was going to do it.

Did you ever dream tennis would become so international?
BJK: Absolutely. We were thinking globally in 1971, in Gladys's bedroom. And when we started the WTA in 1973, the by-laws were such that the player board of directors had to be from the five main continents. But I still think tennis, not just women's tennis, should be bigger. The 40th anniversary of the first Virginia Slims Circuit is a great opportunity to take stock and be thankful, and let people know the benchmarks we've obtained over time. But I only like to look back because I'm looking to the future. How do we keep people interested in tennis, and keep kids playing tennis in all these countries? That's the challenge and I know that Stacey [Allaster, chairman and CEO of the WTA], as well as dealing with the now stuff, is always thinking about where to take the sport five or 10 years from now.

How would you grow tennis?
BJK: We've got the WTA and ATP World Tour and Fed Cup and Davis Cup, but we need more of a co-ed element - everybody knows the value of that - and I would like World TeamTennis to fill that role. It could make us the biggest, the greatest. I've always thought the WTA and ATP should be together. It doesn't mean you have to have every tournament together, it doesn't mean you market everything the same. But the guys have never spent any time with me - they don't understand my thought process and how much I admire them and how much I care about them. Anyone who's close to me and knows my history knows I'm for the men as well as the women. I'm for equality. 

... and you're a big believer in teams.
BJK: Every child who signs up for tennis should be put on a team, especially in the US. Because here's what people say: My kid plays lacrosse, baseball, football - whatever - and they take a tennis lesson once a week. We should get rid of that word, and put them on a team. I just think the team way is most popular with kids because they want to be with their friends. And co-ed is a great way to teach children about equality without them knowing it. If you come to a TeamTennis match, you're watching men and women helping each other, and you have equal contribution by both genders. I think that's a great lesson in life, so I would like to see a team season and an individual season.

Talk about your passion for doubles.
BJK: In 1972 or 1973 I wanted to get 20% of the prize money for singles and 80% for doubles... I was No.1 in the world and the other players thought I was mad. But I've always believed doubles is more exciting to watch than singles… and mixed doubles is the best, yet it gets the least amount of coverage. In our TeamTennis, we play a set of everything, and almost every night the mixed doubles is the best set. Stefanie Graf played mixed doubles in Houston, and you would not believe it was the same person. She was waving her arms, yelling at the crowd. Come on! Let's go! Fans love the human element.

What is your view on players attaining the No.1 ranking before winning a Grand Slam title?
BJK: I love it. The tour is the backbone of our sport. The first Virginia Slims tournament in San Francisco was during the Australian Open. We didn't care about that; we cared about professional tennis. We knew we'd have to give up the majors. I'm thankful we didn't worry about it because that's not what people were talking about. Without the tour, the majors never would have shaped up - the national governing bodies would have controlled our lives forever. In fact, in the early 1970s, I wanted us to take over the majors but the players wouldn't do it. Can you imagine? I also used to say forget the points: whoever earns the most prize money wins the year. Done. I think it would make the players play more. It's probably not realistic now, but that's what I would do.

Did you ever dream you'd still be talking about these issues 40 years on?
BJK: There are always issues, always things to prove. And I love tennis. It has probably been the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. You know, like A Tale Of Two Cities… that's how I feel about tennis. It's been the most frustrating part of my life, but it's also been the most generous, it's given me everything that I have. The bottom line is that I've been very blessed. I just wish I was a billionaire. I'm serious! If I was a billionaire I could make these things happen. I didn't make the big bucks, so you've gotta convince the people with the big bucks… and people are very risk averse.

Why are things like mentoring and your pre-US Open Power Hour important?
BJK: I think it enhances the lives of the young players. Educating young women about the history of their sport is one aspect of it. I believe the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. I really love history, I think it helped me become the leader I became, and I think young players become prouder when they know what they are a part of. At the same time, just because you're highly skilled at something, it doesn't mean you're going to be happy. If I'm mentoring someone I worry about the total person - the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual part of the human being. I think the Power Hour is helpful for that, and it's enlightening for me too - I have a wonderful time. The players keep me young, keep me on my toes. And it's great having people like Martina Navratilova, Andrea Jaeger, Leslie Allen, Katrina Adams and Tracy Austin there too.

Do you feel today's players think enough about the big picture?
BJK: I keep telling players, you have the most power when you are current, when you have the least amount of time to think about it. And now there are so many other influences - agents and parents are very powerful, too. I thought Venus did a great job coming out and talking about equality and equal prize money. But players can be so shortsighted. At Power Hour I tell them, if they think they're not important, they are. If they pull out of a tournament, it matters. They have to take responsibility for shaping the future. And I say to them, do you ever ask the promoters how they are doing? Are they making money? Because if they aren't, sooner or later the players won't, either. We had to overcome things. Of course there was self interest. But we knew if things were better on the business side, things would be better for us.

What do you make of the social media phenomenon?
BJK: It's vital, we absolutely have to be on it, because that's how kids and young people relate to each other: Facebook, Twitter, and whatever people are going to be using next week. Interactivity with the fans is so important… without them we ain't got nothing. I just bought an iPad and I have to get with it because I use my BlackBerry all the time and I use about three functions. The real challenge now is to get your information through all the other information and keep things simple for the fans. I mean, when I played Bobby Riggs there was no cable and we had the three main networks and PBS. That was it! No microwaves, no fax machines, nor reality TV shows, and we were just going to touchtone telephones. Can you imagine how much focus we had? Thank God we're 40 years old, because if we were trying to start a women's tour now it would be so hard.

Do you have any regrets?
BJK: No, not at all. People think I have three heads but, hey, what am I gonna do? I'm not working for a popularity contest; I had to make that decision very early on. I told the other players, if you want to be popular, we're not gonna win. Let's keep focused on the vision, like a ball in a rally, and doing the right thing. I said future generations would get the applause and the big bucks, but if you like the idea of getting things started, then we're cooking. And they bought into the dream. Now I tell today's players they are living the dream. Circumstances are different every generation, and that was the hand we were dealt. We were lucky to have a hand at all… we were lucky to have some cards!

Interview by Adam Lincoln

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