Named one of Time’s 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century more than a decade ago, Billie Jean King has devoted her life to advocating women’s rights and fighting sexism in sports and society. Her conquests on and off the court, along with her approachable, humble demeanor, solidifies her position as a strong role model for generations to come. Her new book, Pressure Is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, was released in August. We caught up with King between book signings and World Team Tennis events in King of Prussia, the new home of WWT’s Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team.
MLT: Thirty-five years have passed since the “Battle of the Sexes” match between you and Bobby Riggs. What are some of the things you remember?
BJK: The match against Bobby was much more than a tennis match. It was all about social change, and there was a lot on the line. It was the ’70s; the war in Vietnam was cooling down; Watergate was heating up and the women’s movement was at its peak. We’d just formed the Women’s Tennis Association and we were trying to get the Virginia Slims Tour off the ground. If I lost to Bobby, I was really concerned it might put a damper on all the things we’d worked so hard on up to this point. I knew I had to win. Looking back, I remember preparing for the match and the little things—like being carried in on an Egyptian litter by members of the Rice University track team, the atmosphere in the Astrodome being electric, even a little bit circus-like. And strange as it may sound, I distinctly remember changing my game plan against Bobby right as I walked on the court. It was that move that helped me win.
MLT: Looking around at all the young girls involved in a sport, they radiate a physical confidence and respect of their bodies. How did playing tennis affect you personally, and what benefits do you attribute to women’s sports?
BJK: When I was 11 years old, my friend Susan Williams asked me to go play tennis. I had no idea what tennis was, but after my first group lesson (with Clyde Walker at Houghton Park in Long Beach, Calif.), I knew tennis was the sport for me. I loved everything about it. I also knew that I wanted to make a difference in this world, and tennis was one way for me to do it. But I couldn’t create change unless I was the best tennis player in the world. I’d love to see more girls and boys get active—get up off the couch and have some fun. We have a program at the Women’s Sports Foundation called GoGirlGo, and we’re trying to get one million inactive girls active. It’s working—and in markets all across the country, we’re seeing the beginnings of a healthier, more active generation of young people. That’s very satisfying to me.
MLT: Who are your “sheroes” (Billie Jean lingo)?
BJK: I have heroes and sheroes. So many who came before me have done so much for me. My parents, Bill and Betty Moffitt, my brother, R. J. Moffitt, and my partner, Ilana Kloss, inspire me to be a better person. I had teachers who guided and shaped me as a young person, coaches like Clyde Walker and Alice Marble who taught me so much more than tennis—and people like Rev. Bob Richards influenced many in so many positive ways. When you’re 64—and soon to be 65—there are always so many people who helped make you the person you are. That’s what’s so great about living life with gusto. You’re always learning new things and meeting new people.
MLT: I remember a former teacher saying that a black man would make it to the White House before a woman. And now that seems to be coming true. But instead of focusing on the outcome, what’s your take on the positives you see coming out of Hillary’s run?
BJK: Hillary showed us all that anything is possible. She may not be the Democratic party’s nominee this year, but she opened the hearts and minds of men and women across this country. She has shown us that it is fine for women to take charge and lead. Now it’s up to us to follow her path.
MLT: You’ve accomplished so much over the years—and so much for others—and been both a role model and a source of inspiration to both women and men. How did you stay grounded and find time to focus on/take care of yourself, particularly through what must have been very challenging times in regard to your personal life?
BJK: I have been blessed with a great life and I have a responsibility to give back to those who have helped me succeed. In recent years I have made a conscious commitment to take better care of myself. I am committed to daily meditation, an improved diet and a good exercise regimen. I still have so many things I want to accomplish and we aren’t going to get there unless we are all at the top of our game — and that includes me.
MLT: It has been a year since you launched GreenSlam to help raise the environmental consciousness of the sports industry. What are some of the things you’ve been doing through this program?
BJK: We have formed a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and they are really leading us in the right direction. At this year’s US Open you will see many environmentally conscious enhancements to the event experience. GreenSlam, the NRDC and the USTA are starting to make a difference and there are so many more projects on the horizon for us. It is a great time for all of us to get involved in green initiatives.
MLT: There aren’t a lot of opportunities to view women’s sports outside of the big tennis championships, LPGA tournaments, college basketball and Olympics. Do you think the new women’s professional soccer league will help change this?
BJK: I hope the new women’s soccer league breaks through, but getting women’s sports coverage in the media is always an uphill battle. When you consider that men control 90% of all media decisions and women’s sports frequently receive less coverage than horse racing, it puts things in perspective. Women need to support women’s sports. Fathers of daughters need to step up as well. If we all make a commitment, we will move the needle.