Pride Month

My Inspiration: Billie Jean King by Ilana Kloss

Ilana Kloss, the former WTA World No.19, describes partner Billie Jean King as the 'People's Champion' with an extraordinary ability to connect with others.

By Ilana Kloss

I first met Billie Jean in 1966 when she came to play at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where I was a ballgirl. We'd all fight to ballgirl for her - especially at net where we'd get more work. It's the first memory I have of seeing a female athlete live - we didn't have TV and any tennis that wasn't local we would have listened to on the radio - and she brought this amazing energy, focus and sense of the theatre to the court. It was electrifying. She was a serve-and-volleyer and she was all-in. That's something I've seen her be throughout her life - everything she takes on is 100%.

In my mind, the great champions are those who inspire others - who are not only good at what they do, but in using their platform to help others. Billie's philosophy in life is to try to make people the best they can be. That was the case when we were playing - in the '70s, we would practice with each other and help each other, as we didn't have hitting partners, but then go out and compete. Billie had no issue making you better, because she wanted to beat you at your best.

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I call her the People's Champion. She has this deep sense that everyone should be given an opportunity, and to have a seat at the table. It's about sharing with others, too, which is why she's such a big believer in everything team-related. She loves being part of a team because she wants to uplift others, so that they can have a shared experience. Obviously she was incredibly competitive and loved singles, but if you ask her, she took the most joy from playing doubles - and it's because of this need she has to connect with others. And yet it is ironic, because as a leader you are pushed forward. At times she has felt lonely as a leader but the joy that comes from making it better for everyone, I think, is what guides her on and off the court.

Billie Jean King (left) and Ilana Kloss celebrate joining the LA Dodgers ownership group

She has a great need to be with the people, and that's due to her deep curiosity. When you walk into a room, you can really feel her presence - she's a force of nature - but she really, properly listens to people. She's very focused and in-the-moment with whoever she's talking to. All the way along the road, whether she was seven years old or 76 years old, she's always wanted to learn. She's passionate about what's right, but she's never got to the point where she thinks she can stop learning from others - especially people who aren't like us. Many of us tend to gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us or have the same beliefs, but not Billie.

That's how she's been able to be a uniter, not a divider. She has a reputation as a fighter but she doesn't like confrontation. It's a last resort. When she has to, she'll go all in, but she prefers to work quietly, behind the scenes.

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Tennis has long had this contradiction whereby people like Billie were fighting for progressive ideas - but the sport itself can be very conservative. Getting through to those people has been one of Billie's greatest achievements. She wasn't from that traditional background but she had a vision that was more exciting. When she went into corporate America and sat down with CEOs, they were for the most part conservative white men. She was able to get them to understand that their daughters should have the same opportunities as their sons - and I think she was able to reach them because she's a good listener. She was able to make people feel comfortable, and then present a different point of view. She's a big believer in letting people talk - and if you can have a conversation, you can work through differences.

Billie Jean King, Ilana Kloss - Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Photo by Helen Russell

It hasn't always been as easy for Billie to fight for herself. In the early days, the sponsors actually told her that the Tour wouldn't make it if it was known that she was a lesbian. It could literally destroy the Tour. That's a lot of pressure. When Billie was outed in 1981, the weight of that - not just for herself but for everyone else - she felt this incredible weight of responsibility for the Tour. That's a lot of heavy baggage to carry. She had to rebuild her life, but while she did lose endorsements, she never lost her integrity or her optimism.

But being outed then still having to hide? That was huge. Any time you're not your authentic self and need to hide, there's no way you can bring all of yourself to the task at hand. When Billie was on the court, she was amazing at compartmentalizing - she was able to play and perform because that was her stage and nobody could get to her.

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But even when you think you've compartmentalized successfully, you still have this ten-pound baggage of worry on your shoulder. I know I did - being afraid of people finding out that I was a lesbian, that we were a couple. It was tough. Then you get used to it, and that's even worse - it becomes normal. Being able to be who we are is a gift we can give ourselves. It's about being free in everything we do. It took a long time for Billie, and it didn't happen until she was 50.

What motivates Billie now? She definitely feels like she's running out of time, like she's in the final set, and she still feels there's so much work to be done on equality. Look at what's going on with Covid-19 - there are these deep inequalities that still exist and have been magnified by the crisis. The Black Lives Matter protests bring this home as well. The past two weeks have been filled with so many emotions - anger, despair and some hope. I grew up in South Africa in a racist society in the era of apartheid; as a Jewish family we always had a strong sense of justice, and my heroes aside from Billie were Nelson Mandela and Arthur Ashe. But the past two weeks have reminded me and made me better understand how Black people truly feel and the hundreds of years of advantages we as white people have had.

My pledge is to do everything I can to be a part of the change needed so every family who has a black son or daughter doesn’t need to worry that they might never come home based on the color of their skin. Our work is far from done - we have to do better. 

When people start thanking Billie for everything she's done, she says, I'm not done yet. She is still committed to doing great things, and I feel a deep sense of honor and privilege to be by her side.

Interview by Alex Macpherson.

Watch now: Tennis United Episode 9