She's come a long
way, baby. At 12, Billie Jean King was excluded from
her first group photo because she wasn't wearing a tennis
dress. At 26, she and eight others were barred by what
is now the U.S. Tennis Association for joining the
Virginia Slims tour and seeking better prize money. At
37, she was outed for a past lesbian affair and lost
millions of dollars in endorsements.
On Monday the USTA will officially add King's
name to the National Tennis Center during an
opening-night ceremony at the U.S. Open. USTA chairman
Franklin Johnson called her with the news.
"The first thing I thought about when Franklin
told me was all the people who helped me along the
way," said King, the first woman in tennis to
have a major sports facility named in her honor.
King's mother, Betty Moffitt, who hand-sewed the
offending shorts, attended the recent announcement at
Arthur Ashe Stadium of the new USTA Billie Jean King
National Tennis Center along with New York City mayor
Michael Bloomberg and former mayor David Dinkins. It's the
first Grand Slam tennis complex named for a player.
Margaret Court, who won a record 62 Grand Slam
titles--tops among men and women--has a
court named in her honor at the Australian Open. The main
arena at Melbourne Park is named for Rod Laver.
The French Open facility, named for World War
I flying ace Roland Garros, features Suzanne
Lenglen and Philippe Chatrier courts. Wimbledon has
busts of its U.K. champions Virginia Wade, Ann Haydon Jones,
and Fred Perry.
The U.S. Open in 1997 renamed its main stadium
posthumously for Arthur Ashe, the first black man to
win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. The USTA passed up
millions in potential naming rights to honor King.
"It's great Billie got top billing--maybe
it will start a trend," Martina Navratilova said.
"It's phenomenal because it's the first time a woman
has had that honor. And to get it named after her while
she's living, she gets to enjoy it."
King, the only woman to win U.S. singles titles
on all four surfaces--grass, clay, carpet, and
hard--won a record 20 Wimbledon titles and 13
U.S. Open championships. The younger generation of tennis
players have come to appreciate King's
accomplishments. She finished her career with 39 Grand
Slam titles, more than any American-born woman and third
all-time behind Court and Navratilova (58).
"It's awesome," Serena Williams said. "She is
the epitome of not only women's tennis but women's
sports. She did so much for women's sports, and being
one of the backers of Title IX, starting our tour, and
saying we deserve equal prize money. I'm a great admirer of
her. I really love Billie."
King cofounded the WTA Tour, which now offers an
annual $60 million in prize money at 63 events in 35
countries. She beat Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle
of the Sexes" match in 1973 and cofounded World Team
Tennis and the Women's Sports Foundation.
King gained equal prize money at the U.S. Open
in 1973 and testified on behalf of Title IX, the
federal law that banned sex discrimination in schools
and opened academic and sports opportunities for women.
Lindsay Davenport, like the Williams sisters,
was coached by King at Fed Cup events. "She's the
reason why we are the most successful professional
sport in the world," Davenport said. "I was surprised
it didn't happen earlier."
Pete Sampras called King "a legend." He and wife
Bridgette got to know King and her partner, Ilana
Kloss, while playing tennis at a benefit for the Elton
John AIDS Foundation.
"I'll never forget there was a two-year stretch
there when I wasn't playing well," Sampras said. "She
dropped me a few calls for a little inspiration and
support. That meant a lot to me when I was going
through a tough time. There are some very nice people in the
sport, and she's one of them."
King helped put tennis on the map in the early
1970s with the Virginia Slims tour and its "You've
come a long way, baby" promotional ads. Women were
paid 10% of what men earned in prize money until the
creation of the Slims tour.
"She deserves all the applause," Jimmy Connors
said. "You look at it in terms of her accomplishments,
the way she played tennis, the increased interest in
the game. I'm sure she ran into a lot of brick walls
on the court, and what about off the court? You can't pick
Rosie Casals, who teamed with King for seven
Grand Slam doubles titles, was impressed that the USTA
made such a bold move. Only a few female athletes have
had facilities named for them, notably Jackie Joyner-Kersee
(track and field), Dorothy Hamill (figure skating), Janet
Evans (swimming), and Tracy Caulkins (swimming).
"Something like that is not a Wimbledon title,
or a U.S. Open title, but something beyond that,"
Casals said. "And that's what Billie Jean has meant.
She is beyond tennis."
King grew up playing at public parks in Long
Beach, Calif., and was excluded from the photo at her
first sanctioned tournament by Southern California
tennis czar Perry T. Jones. "The shorts day, my mother was
horrified," King said. "I said, 'Don't worry, Mom, he'll be
The 62-year-old King recently was selected to
lead a USTA committee that identifies promising
players. She met a young John McEnroe when he was 17
at the New York home of Mary Carillo, his mixed doubles
partner. He was amazed that King was constantly
thinking of ways to improve the sport.
"Her passion for it jolted me," McEnroe said. "I
walked out of Mary's house thinking there's something
special about that person." So special that a
once-chauvinist McEnroe is now practically a feminist.
"She's the one person most important to women's
sports," he said. "You look at tennis, it's light years
ahead of other sports." (AP)