Q&A: Tennis Legend Billie Jean King

The owner of World Team Tennis’ Philadelphia Freedoms, which kicks off its home schedule July 10 at Villanova University’s Pavilion, shares her athletic philosophy.

Photo by Jared CastaldiPerhaps no athlete better signifies the advances made by women over the past four decades than Billie Jean King. She’s won 12 major tennis titles, striking a huge blow for equal rights with her 1974 triumph over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” all while working tirelessly on a number of causes. King is also the owner of World Team Tennis’ Philadelphia Freedoms, which kicks off its home schedule July 10 at Villanova University’s Pavilion.

MLT: You still play tennis, and you use World Team Tennis to promote the sport—particularly to young people. What can it do for them?
BJK: If I get a child involved in tennis, it’s something he or she can do for life. You can always find a tennis court; it’s so global. When I’m on vacation, the most important thing is whether I can play tennis. And I’ve played on some pretty bad courts, with grass growing on them and the fences falling down. I don’t care.

MLT: A lot of people look at WTT as an exhibition, since there aren’t any trophies or big prize money. How hard do the players compete?
BJK: It’s not an exhibition. We want the audience to get behind the team. We want them to be biased toward our team. It’s very intense. We pay the players in different ways. There’s a bonus system based on the percentage of games won during the season, so every game is money for them and the team.

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illMLT: You’ve been with your partner (Ilana Kloss) for more than 30 years, and you have a residence in New York. Have you thought of getting married, now that New York has approved gay marriage?
BJK: We talked about it, but we’re both so busy we haven’t done it. I feel like I’m married. I’m not going any place. Not that it’s always easy. If you care about a person, you have to be loving, even when you don’t feel loving.

MLT: The two of you also work together. How does that go?
BJK: Ilana is the CEO of World Team Tennis; she runs it. I have all the fun, going out and talking to people. She has to make all the decisions all day.

MLT: Are women getting closer to equality in sports?
BJK: Not really. Look at [AEG chairman Phil] Anschutz. He has lost billions of dollars in men’s soccer, but he doesn’t care. He keeps doing it. We had women’s [pro] soccer in this country for two years, and they let it go. We never get the investment money the boys do.

MLT: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, which mandates that any school receiving federal funding must offer equal opportunities for men and women. How important has that been?
BJK: It’s scary how logical it is. I ask people to put themselves in boys’ shoes. What would you want for them? Women were repressed. Things had to change.

MLT: On the highest levels, tennis is an individual sport. What is it about team tennis that interests you so much?
BJK: I was a team sport kid. My brother (former major-league pitcher Randy Moffitt) and I played team sports growing up. That’s why I like team tennis. I was good at the individual side of tennis. But team tennis has everything—singles, doubles, mixed doubles.

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MLT: You’ve long been an advocate of better physical fitness for the country. Why is this so important to you?
BJK: I want us to be tough. I get upset with the health of the nation and how it hurts the country. People don’t have as good a life as they did. They don’t have the same quality of life. [Being fit] changes your whole life. If you can exercise for a half hour, five days a week, it’s huge. It’s on my mind all the time. If a hotel has a good gym when I’m traveling, that’s great.

MLT: You’re part of the “Let’s Move” campaign sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama. As part of that, you’re working with videogame manufacturers?
BJK: We’re working with the Entertainment Software Association to help them develop games that help kids be active. I think they figured out that they could make money and help the country.

MLT: But isn’t that making a deal with the devil? They’re a big reason kids are sitting on the couch.
BJK: If they can shift for us, it’s big. We’re too sedentary. If someone can help get people up, we don’t care who’s doing it.

To learn more about World Team Tennis and the Philadelphia Freedoms’ summer schedule, visit philadelphiafreedoms.com.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!