Unless you’re a sports junkie, you might wonder what ever happened to Billie Jean King.
The 20-time Wimbledon champion isn’t like her buddy Chris Evert, out there selling tennis apparel and food products. But to tennis fans, King is still synonymous with the game.
She coached the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic tennis team this year. She’s a tennis commentator for HBO. She’s director of World Team Tennis (which she co-founded) and board member of the Women’s Sports Foundation (which she founded). She plays charity matches with Elton John, whose AIDS foundation she serves as board member. And this weekend, she’s in Dallas for the Virginia Slims Legacy tournament.
Whew. And to think it all started when she was 5 years old, washing dishes with her mother.
“Mom,” she said then, soap suds up to her elbows, “I want to do something great with my life.”
“That’s nice,” her mother said.
“I really meant it,” she says now. She pauses, her eyes holding those of her visitor before asking, “Don’t you have moments? Moments of truth, a sense of destiny?”
The first time she hit a tennis ball, she boldly told her parents and brother, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
She has kept her word on both counts. For three decades, she has helped women athletes to be taken seriously. Life magazine named her one of the 100 “Most Important Athletes of the 20th Century.” In its 40th year anniversary issue, Sports Illustrated named her No. 5 in its “Top 40 Athletes” list.
Despite all her tournament wins, founding the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine remain her proudest legacy.
“It’s long-term gratification, creating something as generations go by that can be what each generation wants it to be,” she says. “Performing is temporary. You play and it’s over, play and it’s over. I love performing, but you become obsolete as an athlete. You fade away. What do you have left?”
She is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Most of us remember her for beating Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes,” which, by the way, still holds the record for the most people - 30,472 - ever to attend a tennis match.
With such a background, you might expect her to be just another aloof athlete. But she’s not. In town to promote the Virginia Slims tournament, she extends her hand warmly: “Hi,” she says. “I’m Billie.”
She’s heavier than she was in her tennis whites, her trademark shag haircut a little longer. Behind her trademark glasses, her eyes are kind and direct. She’s just come from visiting AIDS patients, which she does just about everywhere she goes.
“It’s a way to listen, to touch them,” she says. “It lets them know people do care. It was a tough day, but a good day.”
Billie’s had her share of tough days. Years ago, while married, she had an affair with a woman who went public with the romance. This wasn’t the way King wanted people - her family - to know she was gay. It hurt then, and it hurts today.
“During that time, I was very numb, shocked,” she says slowly. “It took a long time. It’s taking a long time. The hardest part was not being able to just come out when I’m ready… . I would never treat another human being that way. It was something I wanted to be sitting around the kitchen table, privately telling my family and friends.”
She felt very violated. She lost people she thought were her friends. She lost endorsements. That hurt financially. Still, she says, “I’m fine, just fine. I would have had more money, but I’m low-maintenance.”
Companies aren’t clamoring for other gay athletes - diver Greg Louganis and tennis star Martina Navratilova - either.
“Martina’s done all right,” King says, “but compared to Chris Evert - and Chris is a good friend of mine - it’s a joke.”
She loves coaching kids, using laughter to make the game fun.
“It helps their self-esteem, it helps their lives,” she says. “This isn’t about tennis, it’s about life. I tell them, ‘Believe in yourself.’ That’ll translate into their lives.”
Between coaching or commentating or serving on boards, she still plays tennis.
“It used to be hard to find somebody to play with,” she says. “At 52 you can find tons of players.”
Though her schedule doesn’t sound like it, King is trying to take life a little easier.
“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” she says. “I want to slow down. Next year, I haven’t booked anything. Ten years from now? I’m not sure. For the first time in my life, I can’t answer that question. And that’s nice.”
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