Billie Jean King: Racquet Revolutionary

The lesbian/feminist/tennis pioneer who brings coed Word Team Tennis to Philly again this month is still trying to change the way the world thinks about men, women and sports

“I can’t eat in front of somebody!” Billie Jean King hisses, gripping the plate her handlers have just pressed on her. They huddle with her briefly, their backs to me, as I stand in the men’s basketball locker room at Villanova University. King has had a long day. She came down from her home in New York City to speak at an earlier luncheon for local supporters of World TeamTennis, the coed sport she invented four decades ago with her ex-husband, Larry King (no, not that Larry King); she’s just come from taping a promo TV spot for the WTT’s Philadelphia Freedoms. She hasn’t eaten all day, and she still has to talk with me for the hour the WTT publicist allotted. She’s beat. She’s hungry. She looks like she’d sell her soul for five minutes of solitude. But—

“Do you mind?” she asks over her shoulder. “I’ll just take two bites—”

“Take as long as you need!” I say, feeling embarrassed and intrusive. But she doesn’t even sit down; she just turns again and stands in the doorway, shoulders hunched, cravenly gnawing pita bread. After a minute or so, she passes the plate back to the publicist, brushes her hands on her navy-blue warm-up suit, and strides toward me.

“What do you like to be called?” she asks—a clever, devious way of saying, “I have no idea who you are.” Once told, she sits on a leather sofa across from the team’s polished wood lockers with their handsome name plates—FISHER, PENA, STOKES, YAROU—and crosses her legs, ready to endure.

She’s smaller than expected, trim and compact, her dark hair spiky, her fair skin smooth despite decades of sun, except at the crinkly corners of her blue eyes. Her trademark glasses are gone; she looks directly at me as I fumble through an opening question, about sportswriter Christine Brennan’s foreword to a book she coauthored with King in which she writes about being 15 years old in September 1973 and rooting frantically for King to defeat Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes, and cheering when she did: “It was the first time I had ever seen a woman beat a man at anything.” What was it like, I ask King, to be that—that iconoclast, that rabble-rouser, that standard-bearer—for an entire generation of women?

King sighs a little and shifts on the sofa and begins to talk, about coming to Philly a few days after that match and visiting the offices of the old Bulletin, and having a worker there tell her: Women here have never asked for a raise, but because of you, we’re going to. She talks about Title IX, and founding the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, and changing the hearts and minds of people, and opening the floodgates to equal funding and opportunity.

Her job here is to let me ask my questions, to wade back through all this well-worn ground in hopes of filling more seats in Villanova’s Pavilion in July, when the Freedoms play their annual seven home matches. If you remember the Freedoms from when they were founded back in 1974, you may be surprised the team is still around (and selling general-admission season tickets for 200 bucks!). I was.