An Interview with Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King turned 70 years young in November, and she isn’t slowing down. In Chicago to be feted as a new USTA Midwest Hall of Fame inductee alongside former USTA president Jon Vegosen, the hardest-working retired player in women’s tennis sat still (sort of) in the Renaissance Hotel for 20 minutes. In a conversation ranging from the execution of the WTA tour’s 40 Love campaign to Nelson Mandela’s legacy to the coming out of diver Tom Daley, she touched on a series of important and sensitive subjects.
Jonathan Scott: You do a lot of things, a lot of business. Are relationships a driver in your decision-making process?
Billie Jean King: That’s usually the way people make decisions if you think about it. Who am I working with? Can we work? Do they have integrity?
JS: So integrity is a deciding factor?
BJK: In business, everything starts with integrity. Otherwise it falls apart, though it does take time to find out who has integrity.
JS: Are you good at revealing people’s true colors through conversation, or getting them to reveal theirs?
BJK: I like to ask questions so I think that helps. It takes time to build trust and respect. It’s something you earn, not something that is given. I start out with it, you know. I always respect right off the bat because we are human, but then over time you learn who the person truly is, just like they learn about you. Hope it works out really well, and you hope that builds a stronger connection over time. You can’t be friends with everybody.
JS: So you are showing your true colors tonight, lady in red for the evening.
BJK: This is for the holidays. I felt like it was holiday time and time to be festive. Let’s just go for it. I go through moods with colors.
JS: When I saw you in Indianapolis this time last year, you were on the IRT [Indiana Repertory Theatre] stage talking to the Central Indiana Women’s Fund leaders and guests, and I think you were wearing purple at the time. What did that mean?
BJK: Well, usually that is my favorite color.
JS: You’re being inducted into the USTA Midwest Hall of Fame tonight. Do you have memories of Chicago? What does it mean to you?
BJK: Well I still have an apartment here, in the Bloomingdale Building. Just wish I had this apartment in New York.
JS: Where in New York are you?
BJK: Upper West Side. The [World] TeamTennis office is on 57th and Broadway. Ilana [Kloss, her partner] walks to work every day. Though she ran today, depending on the weather.
I can stay in forever. What’s great about the building here is that you don’t even have to go outside. They even have a workout area downstairs, Equinox in the basement of the building. I love to go to East Bank [Club] to play. I used to go to Midtown to play when I was here back in the ‘80s.
JS: What does it mean for you to be inducted in to this Hall of Fame tonight?
BJK: Well, it’s always something you cherish because not many people get into the Hall of Fame in their lifetime. Also with my history here, I think it’s more meaningful than being inducted into a different hall of fame where I don’t have any history. It’s really special. I’m already starting to see people I haven’t seen in a long time.
JS: So 1973 to 2013, the WTA 40 Love campaign. How do you think it went? How well was it executed?
BJK: It was fantastic. This year it’s the 40-40-40. Fortieth year of the WTA, fortieth year of equal prize money, fortieth year of playing Bobby Riggs, which was a huge event.
JS: Many anniversaries, and you turned 70.
BJK: I don’t think the kids realize just how big of an event that was. It was probably the biggest event ever in our sport. It wasn’t really about tennis; it was about social change. Title IX had just been passed the year before, but to get back to your original question about the 40-Love campaign, I think Stacey Allaster and the support team did an amazing job. They had all the No. 1s from 1973 to present at Wimbledon this year, which I could not believe they pulled that off. There were maybe two missing, Venus [Williams] and Stephanie [Graf]. Why wasn’t Venus there?
JS: I think she was back in the States, injured.
BJK: Yeah, otherwise she would have been there.
JS: There are a lot of zeroes in things for you this year at the ends of numbers—40, 40, 70. All different numbers. It’s not that you’re 7,000 years old.
BJK: Well I would like to live to 7,000 years old. I get to see a lot of change, which I like. I like to see what future generations are thinking about, like what is important to your generation compared to my generation. What do you guys want for this world? You guys are shaping it now. I’m not. Well, hopefully I am shaping it a little bit, but not really. You’re going to have the burden of so many of us baby boomers because it’s going to cost you a lot to take care of us, because we’re living too long in a way. As long as our quality of life is okay, but I have been around a lot people who have no quality of life. I mean, it’s fine, but it’s not great. I worry about so many young people. The relative numbers of young people, there are a lot fewer and a lot more of us, and it’s going to be a burden. That’s why I like budgets to be balanced. My parents were big on that. Don’t go into debt and don’t spend a lot. It’s not how much money you make, it’s how much you spend. It’s both, but if you spend a lot and don’t invest, we’re talking about just spending and not investing in things.
JS: I always think, sometimes to make money you have to spend money.
BJK: That’s different. That is an investment. I’m talking about material things, just buying.
JS: So the lady in red says to stay in the black.
BJK: In 1973, a woman could not get a credit card on her own without a co-sign by a man.
JS: Was it in the ‘80s that it happened?
BJK: 1975. Hopefully that [Riggs] match helped, psychologically. You never know.
JS: What do you think is the state of the WTA today?
BJK: I think it’s excellent. I think Stacey has done a great job. We need some new stars. As far as U.S. tennis, we need new stars coming up in the pipeline, but I don’t know if we have it. Grassroots level, I am concerned with our sport and I think we want the same thing for our sport, but a lot of us like to do it differently than others.
There are different ways of thinking about it, and I have been big on getting rid of the word “lesson.” When a child signs up for tennis, he or she is put on a team. I put them in a circle and then I make sure they name their own team. I would have them do their skill drills as a team and their fun drills together as a team, then they have to have a match at the end of every week. They can’t just have what they call a lesson today every week.
The kids today playing baseball or other sports, if a kid identifies with those sports by the age of 7, they stay. If we don’t get that same age group to identify with our sport then we aren’t going to get the best athletes. You want critical mass playing, but you also want your champion because a champion inspires. If we can get an American champion—men’s—and someone to follow in Serena’s footsteps, they’re both vital.
Critical mass at the grassroots level. The real sheroes and heroes are in the trenches with the kids. We’ve got to get the 10-and-under, 8-and-under, 6-and-under, and we have to get rid of the word “lesson.” A teaching professional, he or she should be a “coach.” Everybody understands the word coach in this country so we have to relate to the country, not game, the country. The culture in our country is that the coaches have respect, so let’s get rid of this “teaching professional,” that stinks, and just say coach. They have to practice, and the reason they have to have a match is because they have to have purpose for why they practice. If they are only playing an hour a week, they aren’t going to stay in the sport. You’re going to stay in a sport where you are playing 10 hours a week.
JS: Ten thousand hours of practice to get good at something, as Malcolm Gladwell said in the book Blink.
BJK: I was crazy about it. We had so few opportunities, but I also wanted to travel, and I knew tennis—I quickly understood you get to go to Wimbledon. My parents couldn’t afford to send me overseas so I thought, God, that would be great. We have a lot more competition today than we did back then. Now we are coming in last. Girls all want to play soccer, lacrosse, field hockey. I mean, I started the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, and we have about 130 or 140 sports. I always listen, I ask children, I even ask adults in tennis, “What are your children playing?” And most of the time it’s not tennis. It’s pathetic.
JS: Made me think of Graf and [Andre] Agassi I think their kids are into baseball and dancing, maybe soccer.
BJK: Team sports, thank you! I’ve been saying this for 55 years, and nobody agreed with us. And now, what is the average player’s age in grassroots?
BJK: We need to get the babies. What do you think for a teaching pro or coach—when I say coach, that is what I mean. What do you think the average age of coaches?
BJK: It’s 50 again. Do you think we are in a crisis?
JS: That would seem something of a graying crisis.
BJK: We need to get rid of memberships. I never would have had it. It’s a deterrent.
JS: There have been talks and murmurs.
BJK: You want people to feel like they belong to something. And not be elitist. You don’t want us to be elitist. People still say, “Oh, well, that’s an expensive sport.” I think everyone should be spending 80 percent of their money on the kids. What percentage of USTA members do you think go to the U.S. Open?
JS: 12 [percent]?
BJK: It’s a third. So if we have less and less people playing or thinking of us as a go-to, that’s a thing. Also, the destination tournaments, like the Indian Wells and Cincinnati tournaments, they’re only for rich people going on vacation. That’s not going to get kids playing. What are they identifying with?
JS: That’s where Venus and Serena probably made a great mark, coming from a sort of hardscrabble upbringing.
BJK: They have, but there are certain people who still won’t respond to them—they’re still racist.
JS: Speaking about Serena, where do you think she stands all-time now, having won two Grand Slams in 2013 and knocking on Martina [Navratilova] and Chrissie’s [Evert] door?
BJK: It’s funny now because, in my generation, Slams didn’t matter. It was tournaments, the tour. Now everybody’s into how many Slams you win. If they’re going to go on that criteria, eventually then, depending on how long she can play, she should be the greatest ever. She should be. She’s got to get to … 22 is Graf, right?
BJK: She took some years off, and she can pay attention.
JS: Thoughts on Madiba’s passing, Nelson Mandela. You tweeted about it:
Mandela ,a true leader and game changer-we will miss you and your ideals will live on forever in the present and future generations.— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 5, 2013
BJK: Yeah, that was just a quick tweet. I’ve been thinking more. You know, I own the Philadelphia Freedoms [of World TeamTennis]. And I love that word, freedom. And his book is what, Long Walk to Freedom? He’s just one of a kind. There’s just never going to be someone like him again. He’s been ill for a long time.
Ilana and I had the privilege of meeting him. We have a great little photo, so cute. He’s so nice. It wasn’t too long ago, maybe 2008. It was in Jo-burg. And in 1966 when I went down to Jo-burg to play, when they had apartheid, I stayed with a white family where his house is now. And his foundation is there. So we went there and I just started laughing at how I had stayed there in 1966. It was huge then, and it was in Ellis Park then. It just came full circle. I stayed with this white family, and they converted it into his foundation’s home. I just think the guy was so above—talk about integrity and forgiveness. My God, he’s in prison for 27 years, and he comes out of Robben Island, and he keeps moving forward. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t revengeful. He kept his eye on the ball, kept his vision for what he wanted. And he had a great moral compass for doing the right thing. It’s amazing. Freedom. Love. Kindness. Generous. Forgiveness.
JS: Big words. They’re not small words.
BJK: I just keep thinking of more and more words to describe him. But he was really smart. Did you see Invictus?
JS: Yes, and there’s another one out. [Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.]
BJK: Yes, if you’ve seen the series Luther in the UK. It’s that guy. Idris Elba.
JS: In other news recently, recently Olympic-medalist and diver Tom Daley came out.
BJK: He did? How did I miss that? Good for him!
JS: He shot a YouTube video, said he still fancies girls but is with a man.
BJK: Some people do have softer boundaries. Right now he’s gay, he’s with a guy. Maybe if he wasn’t with this guy, he’s bisexual. I don’t know. It’s whatever.
JS: People seem to want to pin him down and put him into a compartment.
BJK: He should do whatever is right for him and not worry about the rest of the world. He needs to stay true to himself and be his authentic self, whatever that is. Don’t worry about what people say. That’s very brave, though, that he did that. It’s getting a lot easier than it used to be, that’s for sure, but it’s never easy to come out.
JS: Why do you think it hasn’t happened yet for a Top-100 ATP player or even a star?
BJK: I think it’s amazing that they haven’t come out, if there is one. Is there one? Do we know? I don’t know! I hope they do, if they are.
JS: There’s always scuttlebutt. What do you think it would mean for the sport and for the larger world?
BJK: It would be good because our sport, we’ve been leaders. With AIDS, and I think Arthur [Ashe] caused that. I want our sport to always lead. I don’t want us to be catching up. I want us to set an example for the right thing to do, whether it’s popular or not. That’s what you want to teach kids. It gets rough, but you want to do the right thing. And just know that you’ve got to go for it.