Between 1961 and 1979, Billie Jean King won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 United States titles (including four singles), four French titles (one singles) and two Australian titles (one singles) for a total of 39 Grand Slam titles. In 1972, she won the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon to claim three Grand Slam titles in one year.
Known for her lightning-fast speed, forceful net game and fierce backhand, Billie Jean’s tennis championship titles are only half her story. We caught up with Billie Jean in advance of the World TeamTennis match in Chicago between two of the league’s most storied franchises – the six-time champion Washington Kastles and Billie Jean’s Philadelphia Freedoms – to gather a bit more insight from the legend. Here it is in her own words.
How did you discover your passion for tennis?
At age 11, a friend asked me to go play tennis. I didn’t know anything about tennis but she said you got to run, jump and hit a ball. Those were three of my favorite things. I had fun, but I thought tennis was a sport my family could never afford. Then we learned there was free tennis instruction on Tuesdays at a local park. After my first session with coach Clyde Walker, I told my family, I wanted to be the number one player in the world. Because I had access and opportunity to this sport, tennis gave me a platform to life a very full life.
How have the skills you’ve learned on the courts helped your business acumen?
Sports are a microcosm of society and many great leaders have some level of sports DNA. Just as I have to make a decision and assess the situation before me every time I hit a tennis ball, I use those same skills in business. Each situation presents a new opportunity and it is up to me to use all of the tools available to me to reach the best conclusion. Sports teach you to be resilient, how to cope with competition and how to focus. You also learn quickly the importance of collaboration and being part of a team and, most importantly, how to lead.
What is the biggest change or advancement you’ve witnessed in professional tennis?
Change and advancement are two distinctly different things and both have had significant impact on our sport. Technology has probably been the biggest advancement in tennis. The new racquets, and especially new stringing patterns and materials, have added significant power to the sport. The teaching process also is more dynamic today. Tennis has become more global over the years. One of the biggest changes is the increased prize money. It has changed the way players prepare for matches, the access fans have to the athletes and the way the sport is managed. When the Original 9 started women’s professional tennis in 1970 we wanted every girl, if she was good enough, to have a chance to compete, be recognized for her accomplishment and not just her looks, and to be able to make a living playing professional tennis. Today’s players are living the dream of the Original 9 and that is a good thing.
What do you hope fans experience through World TeamTennis?
If you see a World TeamTennis match, you see my philosophy of life in action. Men and women, competing together on a level playing field. This really is what I want the world to look like. The tennis is competitive, action-packed and hopefully exciting and fun for the fans. But the bigger picture is one of leadership – people working together as a team toward a common goal. I love it when our fans get behind their favorite team and support them all season long. We are not traditional tennis, but rather tennis for the people.
What advice do you have for professional players with aspirations to climb the ranks?
To really believe in yourself. Pay the price. Work hard. Keep learning and keep developing your game. Dream big and Go For It!