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’S STORY OF upheaval has paralleled the bumpy road of women’s sports in this country. Though World TeamTennis celebrates its 30th straight season this year, it failed in its first incarnation. A magazine King and her ex started, womenSports, flopped, too. So, for that matter, did the Equal Rights Amendment. For years after her match with Riggs, King would jolt awake at night, certain she still had to face him. You’d think, under the circumstances, Villanova would have found someplace to put us besides the men’s locker room. But here Billie Jean King is, looking up as an assistant enters. He asks how much longer I’ll be. King sighs again.

“Another 15 or 20 minutes,” she says, and he withdraws.

I glance down at the pages and pages of questions I’ve prepared. I want to ask her about being named one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine, and about Venus Williams once saying “I like everything that I am”—so unlike King, that, yet so much due to her! I want to know her thoughts on money, and shame, and receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama, and that time she sat all night with Elton John in his Rolls-Royce in London, listening to rock-and-roll.…

Here we sit, two middle-aged ladies in a men’s locker room. One of us changed the world, and it wasn’t me. One of us stepped up, spoke out, demanded gender equality as forcefully and eloquently as anyone ever has. Was outed when she wasn’t ready. Was brave when she was truly shy. Took on roles because no one else would, so no one else would have to, at the risk of her marriage, public ridicule, the private agony of disappointing her mom and dad.

I want to tell her what her example has meant to me, and how she liberated me that night she whupped Bobby Riggs, made it acceptable and seemly for me to try my damnedest to beat my husband at tennis every time we face off, and to have more fun than humanly possible playing volleyball in coed leagues that are just what she imagined when she dreamed up World TeamTennis—competitive, supportive, liberating. But when I glance up, she looks so tired.

Instead, I offer her the only gift I have: the 15 minutes left before she has to rush off to the next interview, next speech, next meal to eat in front of other people. I gather up my notebooks and pens. “You’re so busy. I’ll let you go now,” I say. She looks at me, surprised. Billie Jean King doesn’t like to be touched, I know from reading about her. So I don’t extend my hand until, after a pause, she holds hers out to me.