Billie Jean King is still imbued with team spirit
Michael Jackson sang about one Billie Jean, and the tennis world has long celebrated the other. Still does.
Even though Billie Jean King is 65 now, she is still figuratively rushing the net, going all out, all day, every day.
She could easily rest on the laurels of a tennis career that started as a pigtailed public-court player named Billie Jean Moffitt, from a middle-class family in Long Beach, and resulted in 39 Grand Slam tournament titles, 12 of them in singles and six of those at Wimbledon. She was No. 1 in the world for all, or portions of, six years.
Anybody who has her country’s main tennis complex named for her -- as was the case in 2006 when the U.S. Tennis Assn. labeled its U.S. Open facilities in New York the Billie Jean King Tennis Center -- could pass the time signing autographs and taking nice corporate checks for speeches.
Not this Billie Jean. Her motor runs rich, and constantly, for tennis causes, for humanitarian causes, for gender causes. When it comes to getting things done, Billie Jean always gets her first serve in.
She also has a pet. It is called World TeamTennis and has been going on, with a break or two over the years, since 1974. This will be its 34th season. King founded it, along with former husband Larry King (no, not that Larry King, the CNN guy), after they tried out the idea of coed team tennis, with quicker matches and a more relaxed atmosphere, back in 1968.
“Larry was in law school at Berkeley,” King says, “and we pooled all our savings, about $4,000, and put on this tennis show at the Oakland Coliseum. If it failed, we would have lost everything.”
It didn’t, and the seed of the idea of team tennis -- where music plays and players wear their names on their backs and games go fast because they play no-ad scoring and fans are encouraged to be loud and have fun and the court has colors but no lines and balls that go into the crowd get to stay there -- was planted.
Team tennis has always struggled to find an identity, not to mention a season. This year’s will start Thursday with a match in Newport Beach and run through July 26, when it holds its playoff finals in Washington, D.C. The proximity on the calendar to tennis’ biggest show, Wimbledon, has been both problematic and beneficial over the years, King says.
“A lot of people just wanted it to go away,” she says, “but it’s still here. Wimbledon gives a lot of players a nice excuse just to sit around afterward. Team tennis is a better option. It gives them something to do.”
Don’t expect to see Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal competing for the Boston Lobsters, but also don’t assume that, just because last year’s MVP was Ramon Delgado of Paraguay and the Newport Beach Breakers, this is a league of no-names.
King has established, on her 10 teams, a format that has attracted, for at least a match or two, past greats Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang . . . OK, and Anna Kournikova.
There are current stars such as Venus and Serena Williams, Bob and Mike Bryan, Maria Sharapova and Sam Querrey. Also, former No. 1 player Kim Clijsters of Belgium will begin her comeback with a TeamTennis appearance.
King shares the ownership of World TeamTennis with her former husband, her life partner Ilana Kloss and the USTA, which has purchased 25%.
But she remains the soul and the champion of the cause.
“In my heart of hearts,” she says, “TeamTennis is who I am. Team sports are what kids in this country understand today.
“And it is important because a man can be the coach, or a woman. Both genders compete. Either can be the hero. Men can be in a leadership role, or women.”
Back in 1973, it wasn’t exactly like that. Certainly not in tennis. So Billie Jean King said OK to a publicity stunt that could have cost both her and her gender dearly. But when she beat Bobby Riggs, who finally found somebody he couldn’t hustle, she had taken one giant step for women.
Billie Jean King’s World TeamTennis isn’t anywhere near that dramatic. It is merely an attempt to show tennis in its most entertaining light. No moonwalk needed.