Pioneer Billie Jean King Moved The Baseline For Women's Tennis
Women's tennis champion Billie Jean King is best remembered for her 1973 exhibition match, known as "The Battle of the Sexes," with self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. But King also had a remarkable career, both as a tennis player and as a trailblazer for women: She won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them for singles, and she led an uprising of underpaid female players to demand fairer treatment and compensation in professional tennis.
Those subjects, as well as King's being painfully outed as gay in 1981, are the subjects of an American Masters documentary that aired this week on PBS stations and is also available to view online.
At 69, King is still active in the game as both a recreational player and an owner in World Team Tennis. She tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about the challenges of being a female player in the '60s and '70s.
On how she prepared for a match
I used to think about everything that could go wrong and then try to picture myself, or how I would react to it or how I would respond to it. ... So I always thought about the wind; I thought about the sun; I thought about line calls; I thought about rain, if we had to wait, things that were probably out of my control, and how I would respond to them.
I would think about how I wanted to act. Like they teach in acting, "act as if ..." — it's the same thing in sports. Do you stand up straight? Do you have your body language speaking in a confident way? Because 75 percent of the time when you're on the court, you're actually not hitting a ball. And I think that's where the champions come through. So I would visualize all these different possibilities.
On the challenges of being a female player in the '60s and '70s
First we had the challenge of [there being no] professional tennis [league for women] and then we had this [pay] disparity. But more importantly, the men who owned the tournaments, who ran the tournaments, started to drop the women's events entirely. Most of the places, when they did have us play [and] included us, they gave us about a 12- or 11-to-1 ratio of prize money.
On finally deciding to play against Bobby Riggs, and winning
I declined [to play Bobby Riggs] for a couple of years because we had just started [the Women's Tennis Association] and I was getting no sleep, working so hard. You have to visualize: You're going to start a tour, there's no infrastructure. Who is going to own tournaments? Who are we going to get to take the financial risk of owning a tournament? So all of my time was spent trying to get people to do a tournament in different cities. ... I was learning marketing, entrepreneurship ... and [the media were] nonstop.
Remember Title IX had just passed ... which was very important to me that that passed. It ended up being one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century, particularly for women at the time. ... I really didn't want [Title IX] to be weakened. I thought with Margaret [Court] losing [against Bobby Riggs in the first 'Battle of the Sexes'], it would be a good chance for some of the people to start jumping on the bandwagon to weaken Title IX, hurt our tour, to hurt women's sports, the women's movement. ... As soon as I found out [Margaret had lost] ... I knew I definitely was going to play Bobby Riggs. I did not have a choice.
[Riggs] was 55. He was as old as my father [at the time]. For me to beat him meant absolutely nothing athletically. Nothing. But it's what it represented. When Margaret lost, I didn't know if I was going to beat him. I thought she would kill him as far as winning, and she didn't. ... You never underestimate your opponent.
On being remembered for "The Battle of the Sexes" instead of her Wimbledon titles
I knew that was going to happen, actually, at the time. Because you could tell it was the most exposure I was ever going to get in my life. Every day I leave the apartment in New York City, where I live, I know someone is probably going to bring up that match. And every day, if I'm out in public, since that match in 1973, I always get one or more people coming up to talk to me about it. Most people, if they're old enough to have seen it, remember exactly where they were that day, and they tell me their story.
On being outed as gay by her assistant
I was paralyzed and I was trying to figure things out. I was starting to get worried about — I had this affair with Marilyn Barnett. I was starting to worry about it. She was my assistant. It was a difficult time for me and I didn't know what to do, really. I was lost.
It was really different back in the '70s than it is now. It was different when I was outed in '81. It just wasn't the same as it is now.
I [had] started to have long-term sponsorship deals for the first time, like lifetime deals, and in sports that's huge. ... We didn't make the big bucks. I was finally going to be able to cash in, just for me, to finally make some really good money. ... I lost them all overnight and I had to start over, basically.
On women's tennis today
I wish I could hit like they do, that's for sure. I think it's fantastic what's available to the women and to the men. The men still have more opportunities, but the majors are equal prize money, which I think is wonderful. This is actually the 40th year of equal prize money at the U.S. Open and they were the first. It took us 34 more years, until 2007, to have all four majors [have] equal prize money.
But the tennis today, I'm a big believer in every generation gets better. I think Serena Williams will be, if she continues on the road she's on now, the greatest player ever to have lived in women's tennis. Her serve is absolutely beautiful.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Women's tennis champion Billie Jean King is best remembered for her 1973 exhibition match with self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. But King had a remarkable career both as a tennis player and a trailblazer for women. She won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them for singles. She also led an uprising of underpaid women players to demand fairer treatment and compensation in professional tennis.
Those subjects, as well as Billie Jean King's painful outing as a lesbian in 1981, are subjects of an "Americans Masters" documentary that aired Tuesday night on many PBS stations. It will be shown tonight on some stations, and you can find it online at the "American Masters" website.
At the age of 69, Billie Jean King is still active in the game as a recreational player and an owner in World Team Tennis. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Billie Jean King, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Thanks, Dave.
DAVIES: You know, I remember when I was a kid, the girls on the block played baseball with us when we were in grade school, and then like when they hit junior high school, then they didn't anymore, and they went on to other things. And you know, I think you grew up at a time, obviously, when women and girls weren't exactly encouraged to compete in athletics. Talk a little bit about your interest in sports and what kind of encouragement you got from your family.
KING: Well, I got very, very lucky in the family I was born into because my dad was a total jock. He loved basketball. He was in track and field as a younger man. And my dad being a firefighter could play with my brother or me for hours. And I drove my poor dad crazy and wanted to play catch. Probably the third word we ever learned was ball, and we'd always say daddy, ball, mommy, ball. We always wanted to play catch.
So it makes sense, if you hear my mom's stories about us children, very young children, why we ended up one being a Major League Baseball player and of course one playing tennis, and both sports have a ball.
DAVIES: You know, when you look at your record in close matches, in deuce, you know, matches in Grand Slam events, it's remarkable how often you prevailed, which I think speaks to your mental toughness. How did you prepare mentally for a match when you were moving up, playing competitively?
KING: Visualization we really used a lot. I used - I used to think about everything that could go wrong and then try to picture myself how I would react to it or how I'd respond to it. For instance, with the wind blowing, like last week at the U.S. Open it was really windy, and it was so hard on the players. So I always thought about the wind. I thought about the sun. I thought about bad line calls. I thought about rain if we had to wait, things that were probably out of my control, and how would I respond to them.
And I would think about how I wanted to act. Like they teach in acting, act as if, it's the same thing in sports. Do you stand up straight? Do you have your body language speaking in a confident way? Physically do you - how do you think - because 75 percent of the time when you're on the court, you're actually not hitting a ball, and I think that's where the champions come through. So I would visualize all these different possibilities.
DAVIES: And that time that you're not hitting the ball, is it a matter of preparing yourself to hit it? Is it a matter of carrying yourself in a way that intimidates an opponent?
KING: It's not about - see, for me, I never thought about the other - I always thought about staying on my side of the net. If you start getting on the other side of the net and trying to get into the other guy's mind, I thought - I mean, if they wanted to perceive something on my side of the net a certain way, there was nothing I could do about it. But I really did never - I didn't think about intimidating the other player.
Everything was getting my own act together, taking - accepting the responsibility for it. And I would always visualize where I'm going - like if you're serving, if I were serving, I would visualize - you have to make decisions, Dave. For instance, am I going to hit a topspin serve, or am I going to hit a slice serve, am I going to hit a flat serve, inside-out? There's all these choices.
And of course you have to decide - you have to make a choice among all these various opportunities. So I would have to decide, and then I would picture where I wanted the ball to land on the other side, you know, a big target, not a target like a dime. And then I would have to make a total commitment.
And once I started to toss the ball up to, say, serve, then I had to be in the now. I had to be - I was totally present and just doing, not thinking ahead or behind. And that's really important. Also if you've played a bad point, it's important to shake it off, regroup, think about what you want to do and then go for it.
If you're returning the serve, you want to think about where you'd like the ball to go on the other side as well. And of course I have two sayings when I teach tennis, or - and that is pressure is a privilege, and champions adapt or adjust. And I try to tell people, particularly young people, that champions in life, all we're doing is adapting. We adapt as we go through each day.
DAVIES: Describe the state of tennis when you became a top competitive player in the '60s and what opportunities were open to women then.
KING: Well, there weren't very many opportunities for men or women. We basically were amateurs making about $14 a day. If we stayed in a hotel, they might give us $28.
KING: And we had a good life because we played at clubs like the Marion Cricket Club, Philadelphia Germantown, and if you're in Philadelphia, people that live there, or South Orange, if you live in Northern New Jersey, this was kind of our circuit during the summer. But we weren't making much money, and so I started to complain.
And you know, I grew up around the big sports: basketball, football, baseball. And I'm thinking we should have a professional situation, and we didn't, and I thought how ridiculous is that.
DAVIES: So in 1968 I guess it was, is when they finally let professionals play in Wimbledon, and the prize money between men and women was massively disparate, right?
KING: Yes, when professional tennis came in, actually before, when we were amateurs, the top women and top men were getting very similar payments to go play. So when the prize money started, they gave us much less, as I mentioned with the Wimbledon example. And there was another challenge.
KING: First we had the challenge of professional tennis, and the next challenge is this disparity, but more importantly the men who owned the tournaments or ran the tournaments started to drop the women's events entirely, most of the places. When they had us, then - when they did have us play and included us, they gave us about a 12- or 11-to-one ratio of prize money. So this was not fun, you know, fighting for professional tennis, and then the guys decided - but my former husband, Larry King - no, not that Larry King - he...
KING: I always say that and people always laugh. Larry said when we go professional, the men will squeeze you out. And these guys were my friends, and so I said, oh no, they're my friends, they won't do that. He says oh yes they will. And Larry was right. That old-boy network became very, very strong and very, very closed.
DAVIES: So you in effect led a revolt. I mean you and a few other top women...
KING: We had to.
DAVIES: Yeah, explain what you did.
KING: We were getting desperate. Actually, Larry said to me, he said why don't you and Rosie Casals go and talk with Gladys Allman(ph). She's the one person who owned a magazine and published World Tennis magazine, and she knew all - he said she'll know all the advertisers, and she'll know probably a lot of CEOs, which we didn't know, and she's the kind of person that could get you a sponsorship because she'll have the right contacts.
And he was correct. And Gladys ended up saying let's - you know, I'm interested. So basically we decided we would join together, the nine of us were called the Original Nine, and that is the birth of women's professional tennis the way you know it today.
We signed a $1 contract with Gladys, and she started to try to get us tournaments.
DAVIES: So you and your fellow players formed the Virginia Slims Tour...
KING: Right, she went - right.
DAVIES: Women's tennis tournaments, and you advertised. You built it up from the bottom. And how did the tennis establishment react to this upstart venture?
KING: Not happily, and ironically what happened, a year later the USTA started a rival tour against us. So we had two tours going at once. And so all the top talent was divided. The other tour had Chris Evert, Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, Evan Goolagong, all these names that I hoped had gone with us. And so it was a tough time for all of us.
But 1973, and that's what we're celebrating this year, it's the 40-40-40, and one of those 40s is the establishment of the Women's Tennis Association, the WTA.
DAVIES: You know, you're of course organizing this little revolution at the ripe age of, what, probably 27, 28. I mean, this is kind of a remarkable story.
KING: In my - yeah, my mid-20s.
DAVIES: Right. There's a turning point here, an amazing meeting that occurred in - right before the 1973 Wimbledon tournament at the Gloucester Hotel in London. Do you want to describe what happened there?
KING: Well, we called a meeting. It was June 20th. It was four days before Wimbledon, just like you said. It was right before. And we somehow were able to get the top players in the same room on June 20th. I had Betty Stove(ph), who is a wonderful Dutch player, who came along with us on the Virginia Slims Tour.
I said Betty - she's big and strong and intimidating. So I said Betty, lock the doors. Don't let anybody out. We have to have this - we're either going to have an association by the time this is over, or we're not. And we kind of started laughing, and she looked at me and said don't worry, I'll lock the doors.
So she stood at the back, literally stood there like a security guard, and some of the women did want to leave, and she said no, you can't leave. And so we had our vote, and lo and behold everyone actually heard either because I got up there to speak as the leader and said we have to do this, we've got to be, you know, one voice. And we let them ask questions and just tried to answer and persuade them.
So all those things got going right off the bat.
DAVIES: But, you know, the other thing that when I think about, you know, these top athletes gathering in a hotel room and having this kind of heart-to-heart conversation and making a change, nobody was lawyered up, nobody brought agents. This just wouldn't happen today, would it?
KING: No, no, you'd have agents, coaches, mom, dads. You're right, it wouldn't happen today. And, you know, it's - it was just the players.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Billie Jean King. She is the subject of a new American Master documentary, which aired Tuesday on PBS stations. You can see it online at the "American Masters" website. And we'll continue our conversation after this quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Billie Jean King. She's the subject of a new "American Masters" documentary, which aired this week on PBS stations. It's available online at the "American Masters" website.
Well, this is the 40th anniversary of your match, the Battle of the Sexes, your match with Bobby Riggs. I can't imagine that you're not tired of talking about this, but let's talk about it. When Bobby Riggs initially asked you to play him, you declined.
KING: I declined for a couple years because we'd just started our professional tournaments, women's professional tennis, and I was getting no sleep. I was working so hard. Remember, you just have to visualize. You're going to start a tour. There's no infrastructure. Who's going to own tournaments? Who are we going to get to take the risk, the financial risk of owning a tournament?
So all my time was spent trying to get people to do a tournament in different cities with Gladys. Larry and I were very instrumental in helping. And...
DAVIES: So you had more than a full plate.
KING: I was learning marketing, entrepreneurship 101A, by the seat of the pants basically, and we're off and running. It was really hard. And also you have to remember the media that all of us were doing. It was nonstop, morning, noon and night because Virginia Slims had very - had a very good PR aspect and marketing aspect to get the word out.
So we were just hustling and just working very, very hard at the media aspect, as well.
DAVIES: Sure. So Bobby Riggs convinces Margaret Court to take him on, top-ranked player of the day.
KING: Yes, he did.
DAVIES: He beats her in straight sets. And then you had a - then you decided you had to do it?
KING: Oh, as soon as Margaret lost I said I knew I had to do it. I mean, it was a no-brainer. I mean, OK, remember Title IX had just been passed the year before, June 23rd, 1972, which was very important to me and many of us that that passed. And it ended up being one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century, particularly for woman at the time.
Even though it talks about no sex discrimination, but we'd been discriminated against. So I had - I really didn't want that to be weakened. I thought with Margaret losing it would be a good chance for some of the people to start, you know, jumping on the bandwagon to weaken Title IX, to hurt our tour, to hurt women's sports, all the things that I wanted to - the women's movement. All these things were a part of it.
So it was very, very important that Margaret win, and when Margaret didn't win in May of 1973, on Mother's Day, it was called the Mother's Day Massacre, she lost six-two, six-one, as soon as I found out - we were on our way back from Japan. As soon as I found out in the Hawaii airport, I knew I was definitely going to play Bobby Riggs. I did not have a choice.
DAVIES: All right, so I want to listen to some of the pre-match buildup here. And what we're going to hear here is a slightly edited montage from the "American Masters" documentary, and we're going to hear you and Bobby Riggs talking to some reporters, and then at the end of it we'll hear Bobby Riggs with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." Let's listen.
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KING: You know, I think that I can beat Bobby. I think I'm better.
BOBBY RIGGS: Well, what makes you think that I won't be able to psych you out...
KING: I'm not Margaret Court. I love pressure. You can try to psych me all you want.
I think a lot's at stake for women's lib. I like the idea that I'm playing for someone else besides myself.
RIGGS: I've got 120,000 letters from Bobby's mob. This is the mob of guys all over the world who wrote and told me they were rooting for me. I wouldn't let these guys down for the world.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This has the atmosphere of a prize fight.
KING: It is. That's exactly what it is.
RIGGS: Never bet against Bobby Riggs, especially when there's big money involved.
KING: He hustles off the court, and I hustle on the court, and that's where it matters.
RIGGS: She's carrying a banner for the women's lib. I'm carrying male is supreme, the male is king, no matter what the difference in age.
KING: It's just a bunch of bologna. First of all, people are people, and some are more supreme than others in a different thing.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bobby Riggs, rah, rah, rah.
JOHNNY CARSON: Do you like women?
RIGGS: I like 'em real good in the bedroom, the kitchen, and I really...
CARSON: You're a male chauvinist pig.
DAVIES: And that is our guest Billie Jean King 40 years ago with Bobby Riggs before the famed tennis Battle of the Sexes in 1973. You - that was from the "American Masters" documentary, by the way, which aired Tuesday. You can still get it online at the "American Masters" website.
You obviously had a lot of joint appearances together with Bobby Riggs, building up the attention for the - did you feel like you got to know him at all?
KING: Well actually, Bobby was one of my heroes. I love history. I knew all the champions in our sport preceding me, and I appreciated him. He had won the Triple Crown at Wimbledon. I knew that the Second World War had actually hurt his career, which I felt bad for him because it didn't allow him to get the recognition he deserved.
He was finally at least getting recognition. I don't know - everybody - I don't think most people realized what a great champion he had been, even though I would tell them. I don't think they were really tuned into that at the time because...
DAVIES: Well yeah, he was 55 when he was doing this thing.
KING: He was - he was as old as my father, and I told him - I mean for me to beat him meant absolutely nothing athletically, OK, nothing. But it's what it represented. And when Margaret lost, you know, I didn't know if I was going to beat him. I thought she would kill him, as far as winning, and she didn't. So I'm like oh boy.
And I - you never underestimate your opponent anyway. I mean, my parents, my dad, oh God that was like - he had two words: always respect your opponent, always, always, always respect them no matter what; and secondly never, ever underestimate them ever. So these things were just printed in my DNA almost.
So here's a hero of mine. He's going on and on about women in the bedroom, and keep them pregnant and barefooted and all these things, and I'm like oh my God. He was funny, but - you know, I like show time. I love entertainment. And I think being a tennis player you're a performer. So I got that part.
And I thought you know what, Bobby, just go for it. But I'm going to tell you, I'm not letting you get under my skin because I didn't want him to think he could like he did Margaret, because from what - I didn't get to see the match against Margaret. I must tell you through this "American Masters" series I got to see it once, and I didn't realize how badly Margaret played.
And I felt so sorry for her because we've all been there, every human being's been in these situations where you're not happy, and you don't do well, and you choke. I mean, athletes, we choke. I mean champions just choke less. She had a horrible day at the office. So I felt so bad. But so it did tee us up, though. I must say it teed us up, the women's movement, Title IX the year before, all the things that I've been fighting for forever, equal opportunities for boys and girls.
You know, it's funny because everybody talks about how this divided us. Actually it brought everybody together. It did exactly what I wanted. It had all these parties, all these bets from people. Everybody was crazy at this time about this match.
DAVIES: Well, what I wanted to ask you was do you think Bobby Riggs really held these strong beliefs about the role of women, or was this just basically shtick that he developed to get attention and money?
KING: Oh, I think he - no, I think he was chauvinistic. I think he probably went over the top for the match. But - he was a very kind person, but I think he's very - I think he was chauvinistic, but a great - but a really nice chauvinist. And he and I remained friends up until the day he died from prostate cancer.
GROSS: Billie Jean King will continue her conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. King is the subject of an "American Masters" documentary that was shown on many PBS stations earlier this week and will be shown on some PBS stations this evening. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview tennis champion Billie Jean King recorded with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davis. King is the subject of an "American Masters" documentary that was shown earlier this week on many PBS stations and will be shown on some stations tonight. You can also watch it on the "American Masters" website.
King won a record 20 Wimbledon titles and led underpaid women players in demanding fairer treatment in professional tennis. Her lucrative endorsement deals were ended when a woman she was having an affair with outed her. When we left off, King was talking about her famous exhibition match with Bobby Riggs, which was named "The Battle of the Sexes."
DAVIES: So the day the match arrives, and Riggs enters accompanied by a bunch of young women. You enter like Cleopatra carried on a train of muscular guys. This is obviously part of the show.
KING: Loved it.
DAVIES: Yeah, you felt OK about that?
KING: Well, oh yeah, I felt great because it's show time. And Jerry Perenchio was quite sweet behind - you know, before I came out he said, I have this Egyptian litter, would, do you think you'd get in? I know you're a feminist, you probably won't. I said are you kidding? It's show time. This is perfect. Absolutely, I'll get up here. Let's have some fun. You know, the crowd deserves a good show. Obviously, I was about ready to die because I've got to win this match - I mean, you know, the reality of it. But I also, you know, your fans always come first. So I said no, I'll get on there. And he about fainted. He said you will? I said yes, of course, I will. It's show time.
Let's hear little show time here. I want to listen to a little bit of Howard Cosell...
Oh, it's pathetic.
DAVIES: ...describing your entrance. Let's listen to this.
HOWARD COSELL: It's like Monday night football. It's not the usual tennis atmosphere; it's a happening. And here comes Billie Jean King a very attractive young lady, and should she ever let your hair grow down to her shoulders, took her glasses off, you'd have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test. There she is.
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DAVIES: And that's how Cosell, reminding us it was 1973 when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes." This whole thing - if you took your glasses off, you know, it's just sort of remarkable to hear that forty years later.
KING: It still prevails out there. Not...
DAVIES: Still out there, huh?
KING: Not to the extent, but it does.
DAVIES: Well, I wanted to ask you this because, you know, as a professional and, you know, there's a business side of it, did you get people advising you to - I don't know - where your hair in a Farrah Fawcett do and all that stuff?
KING: No. I did not get any advice. I think they know better with me. I'm very practical. I actually cut my hair shorter for that match because I didn't want any perspiration around my face. I was playing three out of five sets, I'd never done that. I didn't know what to expect, so I tried to actually have a little slightly shorter haircut for that and get it shaped the way I wanted. It was shaped the way I wanted. But I basically love my shag the most. But I felt I had to prepare for this match in a way that I had never prepared before. I never played three out five, and this was one-time only, you don't get another year, next year to come back if it's a Wimbledon and try to win again. This is a one-shot deal, heavyweight championship...
KING: ...match and this is it. And I told Bobby, I will never play you again. This is it for me - I could never go through this again. And this means so much to me historically. It represents social justice to me, Bobby. And I told him this before the match, and I will never play you again, this is it.
DAVIES: This is your shot. Well, were you...
KING: This is it.
DAVIES: Were you nervous when it was time to start?
KING: Actually, what happens to me is I get really nervous the farther out I am, I'm really nervous. And then I start getting into this place in my head which I do not know how I get there. You know, people say well, how do you get there? I start just trying to feel and visualize the moment, how it's going to be and how am I going to respond. But you don't really know how it's going to be, especially this one-shot deal. The one thing I did do to prepare is I went to the Astrodome and I looked at the top of the building. It's huge. I mean I don't know how many hundreds of feet up it is. I also wanted to make sure I knew the lay of the land, understand how to get around the arena, because nothing is worse than going to a new place and not finding your way and you have to keep trying to talk to the guards. I met all the guards. I knew where all the elevators were. I knew where my locker room was. I knew where the car would come and let us off and where it would pick us up at the end. I mean I go through all these logistics because they're just as important if you're not used to an arena, so you don't get lost or get out of sorts. You don't want to get out of sorts for those kinds of reasons. That's the last thing you want on your head. So I did spend a lot of time at the Astrodome the day before though, just to feel it.
KING: Because you have to remember the depth perception was going to be totally different than any tennis court I had played on. If you look at the backgrounds where people are sitting and then watch what a real tournament looks like, where they have this blue tarp up, where it's beautiful, you can see the ball and all that. We had none of that. Look how the lines people are dressed. They're just people that used to play, you know, they played at clubs and just asked them to be a lines person.
DAVIES: You took care of him in straight sets. But yet, as you know, there's been an, there was an ESPN story recently suggesting that based on the recollections of somebody who says he saw some - overheard some mob guys saying that Bobby Riggs may have thrown the match to retire gambling debts he had with the mob. Now there's been a lot written disputing that. People can read that...
KING: That's a joke.
DAVIES: People can read all that stuff. Yeah. Give me your reaction to that notion.
KING: Bobby just, he, first of all, he would never get involved with the mafia because I know Lorne Kuhl, who was his coach during the match, he was like his surrogate son, he was his sidekick. He knew Bobby as well as anybody ever in the history. He's got Bobby's museum. He is so upset. And I said - and I'm not upset. I said don't worry, you know, people always do things like this. It's just this, you know, 40 years later, whoopee, why didn't you do it, you know, a week later or why didn't you do it when it was happening? You know, and secondly Jerry Perenchio is just - who promoted the match - is furious because he goes, it's ridiculous, you know, they're just trying to take something away from you because you beat this - beat him. And I know when someone's tanking, believe me. As an athlete, you know when someone's not...
DAVIES: How do you know? How do you know?
KING: You just know. You can tell when they miss on purpose, you can tell, you just know. I mean I've seen it happen, I know it, OK? You know it when you see it as an athlete. And the one thing that everyone should know is that Perenchio had told Bobby you have to win this match because here's what we're going to do for your career because Perenchio was his agent as well. He said if you win this one - when you when it, he said to Bobby - we're going to do $1 million, winner take all. We just did - that's 100,000, the one that Bobby and I played. But what we're going to do next is $1 million, winner take all, and let's go after Chris Evert or somebody else like Chris. We can go after Evonne Goolagong or somebody else. So they had this all mapped out for Bobby. Bobby is going to beat Billie and then we're going to go to the next one and the next one and we're going to keep raising the ante. So they had this all planned, believe me.
And so Jerry Perenchio - who is still alive and who I visit with once in a while - he said to me that that ruined his career. So there's no way that he would've ever tried to lose that match.
DAVIES: Does it bother you that 40 years later when people hear Billie Jean King's name, they may not remember that you won 20 Wimbledon titles, but they remember the Bobby Riggs match?
KING: I knew that was going to happen actually at the time, because you could tell that I was going to get the most exposure I was ever going to get in my life. Everyday I leave the apartment in New York City, where I live, I know someone's probably going to bring up that match. And every day, if I'm out in public since that match in 1970, I at least get one or more people coming up to me talking to me about it. Most people, if they're old enough to have seen it, remember exactly where they were that day. And they tell me their story and it's very fascinating all the different stories.
DAVIES: I confess I did, I remember where I was.
KING: See. Where were you? Were you...
DAVIES: I was actually, I was in college and I missed the match because I was at a political meeting that night, believe it or not.
KING: Well, that's good, at least you're an activist.
KING: Well, what school were you at?
DAVIES: The University of Texas.
KING: Oh, UT? OK.
DAVIES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
We're speaking with Billie Jean King. She's the subject of a new "American Masters" documentary, which aired this week on PBS. It's available at "American Masters" website.
We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is Billie Jean King. She's the subject of an "American Masters" documentary. It aired this week on PBS. It's still available online at the "American Masters" website.
You know, the other thing that happens in this period is, you know, your discovery of - well, you're dealing with your sexual orientation. You were married to Larry King very young - your then-husband. When did you realize you were gay?
KING: I was trying to figure out what I was. I didn't know if I was bisexual, gay, whatever, when I was going through this period. I had asked Larry for a divorce and he wouldn't give me a divorce. And we didn't talk - I didn't talk to him about my feelings, though. And I really - that's how fearful and homophobic I was. So it was just - I was paralyzed and I was just trying to figure things out. And I was starting to get worried about - I'd had this affair with Marilyn Barnett and I was starting to worry about it. She had been my assistant. So it was a difficult time for me and I didn't know what to do, really. I was lost. It was very different back in the '70s than it is now. It was different when I was outed in '81. It just wasn't the same as it is now.
DAVIES: You mentioned that you were outed in 1981, when the woman that you had had this relationship with, Marilyn Barnett, I guess...
KING: Money, honey.
DAVIES: Yeah. Right.
KING: It's about money.
KING: What else is new?
DAVIES: There was a dispute over property and money and...
KING: Oh, I mean it was just ridiculous.
DAVIES: Right. And this came out in a way that was not of your choosing. And you ended up holding a news conference to kind of air it out and answer questions. And I'm wondering what kind of advice you got and why you decided to do what you did.
KING: I got the opposite advice. My lawyer, Dennis Wasser and my publicist, Pat Kingsley, absolutely did not want me to do this. And I said I have to do it. And they said you can't do it, it's never been done. Dennis Wasser, my lawyer, just said no, no. We, just you don't do these - you just don't do this. You give them reasons to hurt you when it goes to, you know, it goes to court. And I said well, I don't really care. You know, I think the media is important to me, they've been good to me through the years and I am definitely going to tell the truth, so please, would you do this? And they said no. So we're up about 48 hours off and on arguing and discussing and finally I got them to understand that I had to do this no matter what the consequence, that I had to tell the truth. And therefore, they said OK, and we suffered through this. It was very difficult. Larry was there and then Larry and I started discussing life and Larry still didn't want to get a divorce. I had all these different things going on. Of course, my poor mom and dad didn't know what hit them. Pat Kingsley had to call them to get them there quickly.
DAVIES: Yeah. How did they react to the idea of appearing in public with you then? I mean they were at the news conference.
KING: Well, you know what? My parents, I, they showed up and I'll always appreciate the fact they showed up. They didn't - they were not happy. My mother was crying. My dad, we were all suffering. But my parents showed up. They didn't stay home and I'll always appreciate the fact they stood, they got there. And I knew how hard it was for them, being so homophobic. I knew that that was the worst thing - you know, my parents never would watch my brother and me play that much in sports, they never were in the limelight, they didn't live through us, they had their own lives, very much in love, and that was, I just remember looking at been feeling so bad for them. I felt so bad for Larry and just everybody in my life at the time. It was just a horrible, horrible feeling.
DAVIES: And you said, you know, you felt like you needed to do this for yourself - to kind of I guess, publicly...
KING: I needed to do - you know...
DAVIES: And were you right in the end when it happened?
KING: It really got down to what my parents had actually taught Randy and me about our values. You know, thinking back (unintelligible), why did I do - I had to do it, why? You know, why? And it's very simple, actually. My mom and dad always taught us: to thine own self be true, have peace of mind, you know, tell the, you know, just do the right thing even if it's not popular. And this is one of these times. This is not going to help me be popular. If anything, it could ruin my whole career in life because I was just getting ready to retire and I started to have long-term sponsorship deals for the first time, like lifetime deals. You know, in sports that's huge when you get older. And we didn't make the big bucks. So I finally - I was going to be able to cash in in a way for me, just for me to get - to finally make some really good money over the long-term.
DAVIES: Sports apparel, that kind of thing? Companies - Mm-hmm.
KING: Apparels, you know, the racket deal. I had some other things pending. I had socks. I had - what were some other things? I had some other things. I can't remember right now.
DAVIES: And then...
KING: And they, I lost them all overnight and I had to start over, basically. And...
DAVIES: It hurt you financially.
KING: Oh, yeah. I mean just basically start over. And then Larry and I finally got divorced so that's another, you know, 50 percent of your net worth goes bye-bye. But that's fine. You know, I just - you just have to keep, you have to keep going. It wasn't fine at the time but...
KING: You know, and my partner, Ilana Kloss, you know, she's been, we've been together for years and years. So it was hard, it was terrible for her. You know, I really felt the most sorry as time went on for Ilana because of what she had to deal with. And we've been together what, 34 years. So we've been together a long time. And Ilana has been through hell with all this.
DAVIES: Our time is short here. I wanted to talk a little bit more about tennis. I mean what do you think of the game today? About the way women are treated, about the way it's played?
KING: I wish I could hit like they do. That's for sure.
KING: I think it's fantastic what's available to the women and to the men. The men still have more opportunities but the majors are equal prize money, which I think is wonderful. That took - this is actually - Dave, this is actually the 40th year of equal prize money at the U.S. Open, and they were the first. It took us until - it took us 34 more years, until 2007, to have all four majors equal prize money.
But the tennis today - I'm a big believer in every generation gets better. I think Serena Williams is the greatest - will be if she continues on the road that she's on now, being the greatest player ever to have lived in women's tennis. Her serve is absolutely beautiful. I think women's tennis is truly global now.
It's getting better. We still have some cultural challenges in places and the men's tennis is doing better than ever because of the four guys - Federer, Nadal, Murray - just those three guys are amazing. Djokovic. Those four guys are just simply a cut above the rest.
DAVIES: For so long men have played, you know, best of five sets, women best of three. Does that make any sense?
KING: No, I think the men should play two out of three because we're wearing them out. The way the players play today compared to my generation is so much more strenuous, difficult, arduous on their bodies. And I think they should be playing two out of three. And they will last longer. Therefore they have more years, we get to watch them more, which is what I personally like because I get very hooked into these guys like Federer and Djokovic.
They're just - they're phenomenal players. Nadal this year is playing out of his mind. I think I would like them to play two out of three sets because, in fact, it's proven if you win the first set in men's tennis, you win about 88 percent of the matches. If you win the first set. I think it's important to - we, the women, are very happy to play three out of five.
We have more body fat than the guys so we're supposed to be better with endurance sports. OK? The more, longer you go, the better we're supposed to be. So the tournaments won't do it because it would crowd the programming too much. But I would have the men play two out of three.
KING: And save their bodies and let them make more money over more years.
DAVIES: Makes sense. Yeah. Frankly, three good sets is plenty entertaining.
KING: It's plenty.
DAVIES: You know, some ballplayers when they retire find it painful to go to the ballpark and not be down there and in uniform. Did you find it hard to give up competing?
KING: I'm just the opposite.
DAVIES: Or you never did - no?
KING: I was just the opposite. I retired at 40 from tennis and went to the World Team Tennis office the very next day. I had already planned what I was going to do in transition. I call it transition, not retiring. Tennis was not my primary. It was my secondary. It was my platform to try to help equality. So I just moved into World Team Tennis and if you watch a World Team Tennis match, you see my philosophy on life.
It's men and women on the same team, equal contributions by both gender. And when the children come out to watch, he or she sees the socialization among us. They see us working together and we're in this world together, men and women, and we need to champion each other as humans. And it's very, very important to do this.
DAVIES: You've had a lot of knee surgeries. You had double knee replacement, I think, a couple of years ago.
KING: I did.
DAVIES: Do you still play tennis?
KING: I played about five times this year, but I've been so busy with the 40/40/40. You know, the 40th anniversary...
KING: ...of TWA and equal prize money and the King Riggs and all the media. I've been so busy this year and with team tennis, you know, we have a lot of new sponsors and we're in much better shape now. And we have a strategic plan. We have Andy Roddick and Venus Williams have bought into the league. And we're rocking. So I've been busier than ever. But yes, I have played tennis five times.
I had eight knee operations altogether. The double knee replacement was the greatest thing I ever did. I wish I hadn't waited as long as I had. And it provides me to live a life of walking normal again and going up and down stairs. Nothing hurts. I can bend my knees and I can play tennis. I go to the gym and try to take care of myself. I eat too much. That's my big challenge. But I do work out.
DAVIES: Billie Jean King, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
KING: Thank you so much. And I love NPR. I love FRESH AIR. Thank you for all you do to inform us and teach us so we can learn. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Billie Jean King spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. King is the subject of a new "American Masters" documentary. It will be shown on some PBS stations tonight. You can also watch the documentary on the "American Masters" website. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.