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

King admits, wryly, that she wanted very much to be nice, to be a good girl. The trouble was, she also wanted to win, which was—still is—viewed as a masculine trait. Even as she played her heart out in the Battle of the Sexes, Cosell’s commentary focused on her appearance, her glasses and hair: “He never once talked about my tennis game.”

That’s the way it seemed to go for her. When she was first coming up, playing junior tournaments, her family couldn’t afford country-club memberships or proper gear. She was snubbed by the tennis establishment. Sports Illustrated wrote when she was 20 and in the finals at Wimbledon that she had “brown hair, light blue eyes, a small impertinent nose and a weight problem.” “That’s how they talked about girls then,” King shrugs. “They still do.” In the Villanova locker room, she keeps turning questions back on me: Do I play sports? Do I have siblings? Kids? It’s a shy person’s trick, a way of talking less about yourself; I know because I use it, too. She’s been talking to reporters about this stuff for half a century now, and she wanders in and out of engagement. When she really lights up is when she talks about World TeamTennis, the peculiar hybrid she and her ex and a handful of partners invented back in ’74.

What King would like us to know is that the way we think about sports isn’t the only way to think about sports. We view women’s teams as pale shadows of the real teams, the men’s teams; we name them the Lady Tigers or the Trojanettes, make them diminutive, less. We spend money on them because the law makes us; when’s the last time your office had a pool for the women’s NCAA hoops tournament? That was the excuse King heard, coming up, for the women’s tour’s crappy prizes and lousy schedules and dank facilities: No one wants to watch girls play.

King knew in her heart that was wrong. The men’s game is just different, not better. It took a generation longer than she thought it would to prove it, to have Venus and Serena Williams raking in endorsements, to have Wimbledon finally, in 2007, become the last of the majors to offer equal purses for women and men. Now we just have to keep on seeing things differently.

Take World TeamTennis. “I wanted gender equity and a level playing field,” King says. “When boys and girls come out to see our matches, they see men and women cooperating, and both genders making an equal contribution. They play on the same court. They share one bench.”

The nine WTT teams have four players each—two women, two men—assembled each year via a two-tier draft, one of name players (this year, the Freedoms’ opposition will include John McEnroe and Venus Williams) and one of up-and-comers. They play five sets: men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. From the bench, the men cheer while the women play; then the women cheer while the men play. King knows the attendees aren’t consciously thinking about that part of what they see. “But it’s a spillover,” she says. “There’s osmosis. It becomes part of them.” The sport represents life the way she’d like it to be. “Not all guys are better than all girls,” she says.