Billie Jean King Interview - August 28, 2006Posted on August 29, 2006
An interview with: BILLIE JEAN KING
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you all for coming. Just very briefly, as everybody in this room is probably aware, tonight there will be a very special on court ceremony. We will be renaming the USTA National Tennis Center after Billie Jean King. We just had a fun, rain filled unveiling with a sign out front, which Billie Jean was kind enough to join us.
We will have a very nice ceremony tonight that will include Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Venus Williams and, of course, Diana Ross. Then Andre Agassi will play the first and only match tonight following this fitting tribute.
Without further ado, Billie Jean, if you would give a couple of comments before we turn it over to questions.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Actually, before I start, this is really to the media. I've been living with all of you guys for many decades now, and as I said in a speech I gave on the Arthur Ashe stadium court for what is it? "Champion," "King of Courts," "Court of Champions?" "King," that's scary the Court of Champions, what I said in my speech and what I really mean is that without the media, nobody would know what we think or what we feel, and of course with photography and other means of imaging, wouldn't know what we look like. So that's really the beginning. Since I'm in the media room and press conference room, I would like to thank each and every one of you, and the ones that came before you, for making this possible for me, 'cause without you I wouldn't have had a forum and nobody would have known anything. So I want to thank you very much for that.
Of course I want to thank Franklin and Adrian and Arlen and everyone, Chris, just for making this possible. Of course the Board of the USTA, the people I have to thank, the tennis community and everyone.
I still don't really understand this, and I'm trying to figure it out. When Arthur got named, it was easier to understand that for some reason. But when it's yourself, it's like, Wow. I don't really understand it.
So why don't I just open it up to questions and see if I can say whatever.
Q. When US women's soccer was wanting to get paid more a couple years ago, they called you for help with negotiations. Have other women called you on issues like that?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Through the years? Forever.
Q. Can you give us some examples of that?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Softball, volleyball, soccer, extreme well, I don't know about extreme sports. You have to understand through the Women's Sports Foundation they call, too, but they do call me directly. I've met for many years. Sometimes I feel like I think I should start a consultancy, yeah, business, because of it.
It's been fun. With the soccer, for instance, Julie Fowley and I would meet for five years, every Tuesday morning, after the Women's Sports Foundation dinner and talk about soccer in general, whether it was the Pro League or FIFA or whatever.
Always talking to different athletes and different players about their sport. Basketball. Just all of them. It's very much behind the scenes, and I like to keep it that way, but now you're making it in front, so it's up front.
Through the years, yes, I've tried to help in any way I could possibly help while still trying to work and play tennis and all the other things that were going on in my life.
Q. You've been a Fed Cup coach. You could sit on the sideline and impart advice to the players. You've been a player, and you basically were on your own out there. What are your feelings about on court coaching? Have your feelings changed at all? As a player, would you have welcomed having a coach on the sidelines?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I didn't really care if I had a coach that much, me personally, because I was brought up to think for myself. I grew up in team sports first as a child. The reason I'm for it is that we get more media because of it, and anything that will help grow our sport and get more column mentions and get more time on television, if you look at News Bar, they're always talking about coaching the coach got paid this, he got fired today, he made a good call on this yesterday or whatever. I'm all for making our sport bigger and better and more fun and attract new people to it and also keep the ones who have been loyal to our sport.
But any time we can get more column mentions, more on the news, more to talk about, more variables, more things to talk about, more human interest with our personalties, coaches always coaching is always very interesting. There's always different kinds of coaches; some are very exuberant and enthusiastic, others are very quiet, just like players. So any time we can add to players.
And another thing I thought would be helpful is if we really show our respect to coaching and also make it very honest, because the coaches do all cheat from the stands. I really think it's important to have the integrity and honesty for our young people, so I'd rather just have it out there. I think it's much healthier than teaching our children to go behind, you know, try to break the rules. I think it's important to try to play by the rules. So I think from that point of view, it's very important.
I think that we give more respect to our teaching pros, as well, who teach our sport of tennis if we gave more credence to our coaches.
Q. Do you recall
BILLIE JEAN KING: I'd just like to uplift the coaching area and the teaching, because the teachers are in the trenches every day. They're the real heroes and sheroes. They never get any attention. I think this would give them more attention, like Clyde Walker was for me the first time I took a free group public park lesson at Helton Park in Long Beach. Clyde Walker is the person, the human being. It's not having a nice facility. It always comes back to human beings and the people who make the difference. Clyde Walker, because I had a great first experience from that, it was at the end of that day that I wanted to be No. 1 in the world. You'll hear about that tonight a little bit, too. Those are the experiences.
Now, Clyde Walker for me is a hero. Now you guys don't know who he is, you don't know anything about him. For me personally, how he touched my life is so important. So any time I can enhance the teacher, the teaching professional, the teacher, the person who gives guidance to others and helps mold and change their life in a more positive way, I'm all for it. That's why I go back to I would rather have coaching on court and let the media have another thing to talk about.
And also it's more interactive for the fans. The 21st Century is about being interactive, so let's get up with the times. I'm very much for it. Those are the reasons.
Q. Do you recall any match when you were Fed Cup captain that you turned around in the middle of the match?
BILLIE JEAN KING: That I helped turn the match around? Well, you know, I never think I do. I always think it's the player hitting the ball that has to do it.
One thing, as a coach, you definitely are a supportive human being. The coaches who don't think they're the support, when they don't act like they're the support are in trouble. But when you're the player is when you're the star. Once you're off the court and not playing, you're the support act. It's fun to be in both roles, to experience it.
But in Fed Cup, I think you should ask the Fed Cup players that. I don't really want to talk about that.
It's been interesting. Boy, everybody has their own style, that's for sure. Really, you have to be a great psychologist to be a great coach.
Q. You're recognized, Billie Jean, as a hands on kind of person. What would you do if you could to change the match?
BILLIE JEAN KING: What would I do? I don't know enough to answer that question to be honest.
Q. Do you remember the first time you heard about (indiscernible)?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I thought it was a huge improvement. I thought, first of all, we are in a public park, we're in Corona Park, it's 46 and a half acres. I think people should know that. It's open to the public 365 days a year. How many? 362, I don't know. This is really for everyone, and I don't know, I'm not sure the public's aware of that yet. I truly hope tonight with the naming people really start to think about this area and the complex here that continually improves, that they will start to use it more and more. This really does belong to the people, and I think that's important.
Q. When the idea was first brought to you about putting your name on the facility, what was your initial reaction?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, people thought about it for quite a while. But my reaction, "I must be dreaming." "You can't be serious!" "You must be joking?"
In the old days we used to say, You must be joking, but we didn't have the mics on the umpire's chairs. That's why nobody understood that's why John gets all the, you know...
But believe me, we were very demonstrative. We didn't have the mics on the umpire's chairs in those days, we could get away with it more.
I still don't I still can't I don't know. I can't I don't I can't. I don't understand it still. I mean, I just but even if I would see myself play on a video, to me, that's not me. I only connect with myself really when I play tennis or I'm in the process. Like I don't understand it. And I connect with others. But this is like, Wow.
When I play tennis, when I come off the court, I feel connected. I feel as one with myself. It just still feels great, you know. I don't even play competitive, I just hit half court for an hour and exercise. I just love tennis so much. It's just the greatest. You get to run, hit, jump of course I can't jump anymore, I can't even get an American Express credit card under my foot.
But I absolutely love this game. I love it more. I love watching the wheelchair players. I love watching. They play one up, one down. I love watching juniors. I love watching people of all ages. I'll watch the 95 and over if they have a tournament near me. I just love to watch tennis at every single level whether you've never picked up a racquet or whether you're the best player in the world like Agassi is tonight. This is a real privilege to be here tonight, to be able to see him play in his, you know, last Open. His first match, you know, in the US Open of the year he's going to go into transition.
Q. Title IX, what do you think the relationship is between Title IX and women in tennis? Do you think in a perverse way...
BILLIE JEAN KING: I think it probably hasn't helped us in some ways. We need more girls into sports anyway. So we should be able to take care of tennis easily, you know. It should be a no brainer, okay? We've got to do a better job and continually the one wonderful thing about tennis I think is it's a team sport and an individual sport. We have everything going for us. We have both genders. We're a team sport, an individual sport, we have everything going for us.
So it's our job, you know, all of ours in the tennis community and beyond to get it exciting for the kids, the new people, and to bring some oldies back, too. It's fun. A lot of people are starting to rediscover it because it doesn't take as long to play and they get in better shape. So I hobble around a little bit and have a little arthritis, who cares, I feel better.
Q. Billie Jean, just in general, when you started, public parks and everything, what was it like then, and how has it changed? You might have answered this, but as far as programs here at the National Tennis Center going forward, have you had any
BILLIE JEAN KING: No, I have not had any input yet. You know, I hope that we get more and more players like, you know, the High Performance. We've just joined forces with Chris Evert. We also work with all the other academies. Got them at Bollettieri's, Van Der Meers, Macy's. We work with everybody. Any kid can go to any place they want and get a grant if they're good enough and have earned it. I think we should say that.
I must tell you that the top players like Chris and John and Jimmy and Martina, all of us are always talking about how we want to help. Tracy Austin is another one that always wants to help our kids do better.
As far as the programs here, we're going to be probably having more and more programs here but we already have a ton of programs. I know my doorman's kid comes out here all the time and he's coming tonight, by the way, the doorman.
Q. You mentioned about this being a public facility. Everybody talks about tennis as being country clubbish, but I think of you, Jimmy, John...
BILLIE JEAN KING: Arthur.
Q. The Williams sisters. I can't think of a top player that came out of a country club atmosphere.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Even McEnroe. Mary Carillo talked about the club she played at, and it's not exactly posh. I say, Would you please tell me, I want to go look at it.
But all of the great champions from our generation and before, Budge, Marble, all the great ones of the past, Maureen Connolly is from a San Diego public park, all of us came from the park. We're park kids. More than 70% of tennis is played in public parks, which I don't think people realize.
I think what's important to us is the national public parks, and the USTA and all of us work together to get the people to have the contracts to have the good programs and to make it fun at the parks. You know, you can go to a park, but you need a person to organize it and touch your heart and mind and get you excited about the sport. So that's really important, as well.
Q. The person you are most closely associated with, I think, is Bobby Riggs. For Bobby, this moment, how do you think he is responding to what the USTA
BILLIE JEAN KING: Bobby? Bobby is gonna say he's responsible (laughing), which is fine. He did make a big difference in my life. He's another one.
I don't think of this as my place, I think of it as our place. This belongs to everyone, and I think I represent that in my philosophy on life. You know, equal opportunity for boys and girls. The Open is the first major that had equal prize money in '73. I think they've taken that lead, I mean, years and years before anybody else.
I don't know if I'm not sure the Open has been appreciated for that enough, what message that sends to the rest of the world. I mean, you have women in a village who are in poverty who through microfinancing and microcredit become a status symbol in that village because she's "The Phone Lady." There's a lot of messages that we can send.
I want to thank also the USTA for not just selling sponsorship every single second, that we've kept a lot of integrity here with Arthur and Louis and myself. I certainly hope Jackie Robinson, I hope the Mets do the right thing, that's a no brainer, too, as Mr. Vessey wrote about yesterday.
So I think it's very I don't know. I think we're kind of going back to, I don't know, maybe the Golden Age, just trying to do the right thing now. I think that's important for our country not to just be obsessed with material things every single second. I think it really sends a classy message that people are the ones who make truly make the difference.
You need money, though. Money equals opportunity, there's no question. So it must be difficult at times to weigh that.
Q. Did the USTA tell you how much money they were giving up to put your name up there?
BILLIE JEAN KING: No, but I'm guessing probably six million. Is that a good guess, Arlen? Six to ten?
ARLEN KANTARIAN: Five to ten.
BILLIE JEAN KING: I guessed. Me, because I'm an entrepreneur myself, I figured sixish. That's about I think that's right. They didn't have to say anything. I knew. I had a sense. I wasn't exactly right, but you think it's about that.
Q. You've been a critic, as most of us have, of the USTA over the years. Did it surprise you that they resisted this opportunity?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I don't think it's an easy decision for any board. I think they have to look at everything. I think here's what I think. I think the Board now I'm one of the suits now. I used to look out, I'm 63, There's one of those old farts, right? Anyway, I'm right there with them.
I think this generation went through so much change in the '60s and '70s with the civil rights legislation finally coming to a head and being passed which was just so sad to wait all these years, to wait for the '60s. But during the '70s, you think about our sport went through a lot of changes from the '60s to the '70s. I always called my generation the transition generation as a professional player, but you have also to think about our generation also went through transition. If I did the right thing in the '60s, by having the civil rights acts passed, and also our generation, we went from amateur tennis to crazy tumultuous times for two or three years with contract pros, independent pros, amateurs, all those years. Actually, when Arthur won the Open in '68, he was still in the Army I think and he was considered an amateur then still?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Yes, so we all knew that was baloney, so we all went through that. Then we got Open tennis, so we finally got prize money in '68, became an honest sport for the first time. So I think this generation of Board members and some were younger but they're influenced by this generation. I think we are the generation that can make a difference. I think we understand change. We're not afraid of it. I think that's what's happening here. It's kind of subtle the way it's evolving, but it definitely is. I admire their thinking and that they're trying to think out of the box, trying to truly make a positive difference. I think they're thinking about our sport and the people more than the organization, and that's a shift. I think they're thinking about tennis. It used to be about the organization first, and I think now they're thinking about tennis first and the people, and that's a good sign. I think it relates to when we grew up, the generation.
Anyway, I thought of that a lot and reflected on it a lot, and that's my thoughts on that for right now. I'm sure there will be more.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: I think on that note, we're going to bring the questioning to a close.
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