This article originally appeared in the March 1975 issue playboy magazine.
If, in these days of raised female consciousness, someone were to write a liberated version of the old “hard-working boy makes good” stories, he could find a ready-made model in the sports world’s first genuine woman superstar. Billie Jean King is a living testimonial to the tradition that anyone of modest background who has talent, wants something badly enough and is willing to work his or her ass off can be successful. She’s the best-known woman tennis player in the world—and the richest; she’s becoming a dynamic sports promoter; and she’s even launching a new career in television.
Billie Jean was born November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. She was a perfect child, “just a little angel,” says her mother, Betty Moffitt. But she hated doing the accepted little-girl things, preferring instead to spend her time in the back yard, playing catch with her father, Bill, now a 31-year veteran with the Long Beach Fire Department. To make ends meet, Moffitt moonlighted at nights in a plastics factory and Betty rang neighborhood doorbells as an Avon lady and was a Tupperware saleswoman. When Billie Jean was four, her father, who couldn’t afford to buy her a baseball bat, scrounged up a piece of wood and carved one.
Billie Jean developed fast, and for several years was the biggest kid in her class in school. By the time she was ten, she was a real tomboy—though that’s a word she’d like to see stricken from our vocabulary. She loved to play football in front of the family home, especially if she could carry the ball. She never lost a race at the firemen’s picnic, beating all comers—boys and girls alike. She played basketball and was shortstop on a girls’ softball team, on which she was the youngest player. Even today, she recalls with pride one game in which she made a shoestring catch off a looping line drive, spun and threw to third to double off a runner—saving the game in the final inning. She was mobbed when she came off the field. It was her first taste of public adulation—and she loved it. She still does.
But the Moffitts weren’t keen on raising a halfback or a shortstop. One day her mother abruptly ended Billie Jean’s football career—on the ground that it wasn’t ladylike. Billie Jean asked her father what sport a girl could enter. Moffitt thought for a while, and finally suggested swimming—or tennis.
“What’s tennis?” asked Billie Jean.
“Well, you run a lot and hit a ball,” her father said. “I think you’ll like it.”
Billie Jean liked it. She did odd jobs for neighbors, raising a quarter here, 50 cents there; her parents chipped in and she bought a nice new racket with maroon nylon strings and a maroon handle, for eight dollars. From the day of her first tennis lesson, in the Long Beach public parks, tennis has been her whole life—almost to the exclusion of everything else.
“A few days after her first tennis game,” her mother recalls, “Sister"—that’s the family name for Billie Jean—"came home to tell her father and me, ‘I am going to be the best woman tennis player in the world.’ We took her at her word. She was and is the kind of girl who means what she says.”
Every moment she was not in school Billie Jean spent on the courts or in the back yard, banging a tennis ball against an old wooden fence. Finally, she literally demolished it, so her father built a new one for her out of concrete blocks—and set up a spotlight to allow her to keep on practicing after dark.
When she was 15, Billie Jean—or Jillie Bean, as the sporeswriters called her—won her first big tennis tournament. Three years later, she became the youngest person ever to win a doubles championship at Wimbledon, the shrine of world tennis—and the place where she would go on to take 18 titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
While attending Los Angeles State College, Billie Jean met Larry King, a handsome blond prelaw student one year her junior. After a two-year courtship, interrupted constantly by the demands of her burgeoning tennis career, Larry proposed in a Long Beach coffee shop—at two A.M. the night before Billie Jean left for an expense-paid three-month trip to Australia, where she was to take private lessons from Mervyn Rose, a former Davis Cup player. Rose taught her a new forehand, a new service and a bold new strategic outlook on the game.
Billie Jean and Larry were married on September 17, 1965. The newlyweds moved into a little apartment not far from campus and Billie Jean stayed home that first fall and winter—because she thought it important to be a good wife, in the old-fashioned sense. But she was unhappy. She still wanted to be number one. And Larry gave her his full support.
The rest is tennis history. By 1971, Billie Jean had become the first woman athlete to have earned $100,000 in a year. As the most influential figure in the popularization of the game in the past decade, she helped engineer the most talked-about coup in tennis when, in 1973, she defeated 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a $100,000 winner-take-all “Battle of the Sexes” in Houston’s Astrodome. Now 31, and despite two operations on her knees, Billie Jean still plays a man’s power game—rushing the net and glowering over it like an angry bear, serving and volleying with machinelike efficiency, relentlessly overpowering her opponents with a combination of strategy and speed. She runs down balls other players wouldn’t even attempt to reach. Billie Jean King has reached the top by following a formidable daily training regimen. Every day she rises early, and after several cups of coffee—if there’s time, bacon and eggs—she is out on the court, any court, working out with other players. Drilling forehand, backhand, cross court, down the line, for hours. At night, even while watching TV, she flails her legs around with 11-and-a-half-pound lead weights attached to her ankles, which she claims are her weakest point.
Today, Billie Jean and Larry King are partners in King Enterprises, a multimillion-dollar business built around Billie Jean’s ability with a tennis racket. She endorses products ranging from tennis shoes to suntan lotion; publishes a magazine, WomenSports; recently signed a six-figure, two-year contract with ABC-TV to do tennis commentary, a women’s sports special and other projects; and is launching a new syndicated TV series, “The Billie Jean King Show.” The Kings are also among the founders of World Team Tennis, the intercity tennis league that made its debut last year. As player-coach for the Philadelphia Freedoms, she became the first woman coach in any major sport in the U.S.
Billie Jean’s open pursuit of money and fame has drawn criticism from tennis purists. She answers: “They love you when you’re coming up. But they don’t like winners. And they especially don’t like me, because I talk about money all the time.”
Actually, money is not the only subject Billie Jean talks about—outspokenly. In interviews, in editorials in her magazine, she’s spearheading a revolution in women’s sports. Her platform is that they should be separate but equal in every way to men’s sports. Billie Jean sometimes operates like a Thirties labor organizer, taking on all comers from the Amateur Athletic Union and the United States Lawn Tennis Association to male chauvinists everywhere.
To find out what is really going on in the mind of the most colorful and controversial woman athlete in sports today, playboy sent free-lancer Joe Hyams to interview Billie Jean. A tennis buff himself, Hyams recently collaborated on a book with Ms. King: “Billie Jean King’s Secrets of Winning Tennis.” His report:
“Our first interview was scheduled for 1:30 P.M. at the Hilton Inn near the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the Freedoms were playing. I met Billie Jean by the newsstand; she was wearing a simple white blouse, faded and baggy blue jeans and a disgusted look on her face. 'I defy you to find a copy of WomenSports here,’ she said, reaching behind some magazines on the rack’s lowest shelf and extricating the current issue of her new publication—which she carefully placed on top.
"In the hotel coffee shop, she ordered breakfast: a cheese omelet, no toast and 'lots of coffee.’ I was aware, as always, of how much prettier Billie Jean King is in person than on television or in photographs. Off court she is soft, feminine, sexy—despite the glasses, a broad beam and a flat chest. Every time I see her, I’m reminded of Grace Kelly, who had equally unimpressive vital statistics but was all woman—no question about it.
"During the first of what were to be several candid interviews, we were interrupted half a dozen times by fans, mostly male, who asked for her autograph. Later, we drove in her rented rust-colored Ambassador sedan, which she calls the ” taco wagon,“ to the Spectrum for a workout with some of the Freedoms players, and that night I watched as she and the Freedoms won their match against Denver, before a partisan audience of 7583.
"Another day, after a tennis session at the Merrion Country Club, we drove in the taco wagon through a blinding rainstorm across the rolling green Pennsylvania countryside, en route to New York. We paused at a McDonald’s, where she ordered a Big Mac and a vanilla shake. 'I used to live on 90 dollars a month,’ she recalled, 'working as a park playground director and also standing in a cage at the college athletic department, giving out towels and equipment for women’s gym classes. It was a big deal in those days for Larry and me to have a sundae. It cost 25 cents, had two large scoops of vanilla ice cream and was great. As the Virginia Slims people would say, "I’ve come a long way.” The real question, though, is where am I going?’ We began our last interview, in New York, on that note.“
This will be the first year that Billie Jean King has not played the entire Women’s Tennis Association circuit. Why did you decide to cut down so drastically at what would appear to be the peak of your career?
I’m not quitting tennis. I’ll be playing in World Team Tennis. I’m just not playing the W.T.A. circuit this year. I would have liked to have left two years ago, because I was so tired. It’s just not worth it to work, work, work, work all the time, as I have for the past 20 years.
If you wanted to leave two years ago, why didn’t you?
I didn’t feel the association was at the stage where I could. But there are a lot of good women tennis players around today. Maybe the first year it was true, as people keep saying, that I was the one who made it go; but not after five years. I want to have some time for myself now, as a person. And I need time to devote to some of my new interests. I’d like to spend more time on WomenSports, the magazine I started with my husband, Larry. I’m doing a syndicated TV series, The Billie Jean King Show. And I’m going to be giving tennis clinics at Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas. And, of course, I’d like to see W.T.T. make it in a big way.
But isn’t W.T.T. in trouble? Aren’t there a couple of franchises on the verge of bankruptcy?
I think the future of W.T.T. looks better than it did a year ago. W.T.T. is here to stay; five years from now, it’ll be unbelievable. One or two franchises may be in trouble, but out of 15 teams, with the economy the way it is. I think that’s good. And it looks as if Colgate is going to get involved, putting up a Colgate Cup that we’d play for, like the Stanley Cup in hockey. They’d also help us sponsor a junior program in the cities where we have tennis teams and they’d help us pay for TV time. With television, we have more credibility, as well as more exposure. Sometimes we have trouble getting press coverage for team tennis. That’s why I pulled that stunt of trying to draft Bobby Riggs for the Philadelphia Freedoms. At least it made the papers.
It was just a publicity stunt?
Sure. I just couldn’t resist it. I also drafted Elton John, just for fun. I met him last September at a party; I have all his records at home. He’s promised to write the Freedoms a song and he may even become a part owner. You know, it’s funny; a lot of musicians are frustrated athletes, just like many athletes are frustrated musicians. So I drafted Elton, to make him laugh. Which he did.
How do you feel about being a hustler for tennis?
I don’t know if I’d use that word. You mean a promoter? I’ve always been that way, I think. I think tennis is a great thing to sell to people, whether they’re participants or spectators. I’m hustling for something I believe in.
Doesn’t all that hustling somehow affect the purity of the game?
No. It makes it more pure.
Because professional tennis, the kind we’re promoting, is honest. It didn’t used to be honest, in the so-called amateur days, when they called it a pure sport. It was very impure. Now everyone knows where he or she stands. It’s a lot easier; it’s healthier; it’s aboveboard.
As tennis has gone from an amateur game to a big-money business, it’s become possible for the players to get rich, as film stars, or rock-'n’-roll performers, do. But, like them, you are beginning to be manipulated by wheeler-dealers; in other words, isn’t big money starting to pull the strings in tennis?
To a certain extent. There’s a lot of pressure, people wanting you to play here and there, saying, "I’ll give you this deal or that deal.” For myself, I don’t let myself be manipulated as much as I used to. If I don’t want to do something. I’m not going to do it anymore. Everything for the game and everything for everybody else but yourself: That’s not healthy.
You know, it’s hard to have so many choices. I’m lucky in that I have so many, but … when I was 11 or 12, you know, I had tunnel vision. All I wanted was to be the world’s greatest tennis player. I may have thought it was tough when I was younger if I didn’t have enough money to buy the kind of dinner I wanted. But that problem was simple, although it might not seem so to the average family trying to make ends meet. Now I don’t know which way to go. I have so many opportunities they drive me crazy.
You’ve already mentioned some of those opportunities that you’ve decided to embrace. Your television show, for instance. Tell us something about it.
I’m really excited about it. I’ve just finished making the pilot, but we’ll probably have 12 one-hour shows—specials— on women who participate in sports. I’d like to see other women athletes who excel in their fields be appreciated, the way men athletes are. We’ll have a lot of music in the show, too, because I want it to be fun as well as informative.
You’re the hostess, the interviewer on the show?
Yes. We’ll have some guest reporters, too. Donna DeVarona, the Olympic swimmer—she won a couple of gold medals— was a guest reporter on the first show. We featured women drag-boat racers, volleyball players. And I’m going to interview Karen Magnussen. She’s a skater, was an Olympic silver medalist; she works with the Ice Capades now.
Will you feature only women on your show?
No, I’ll do some interviews with men, too. It’s supposed to be fun for people, not just women’s lib. Although it’s primarily about women, just as our magazine, WomenSports, is.
With the publishing business as difficult to get into as it is, what prompted you to start your own magazine?
I think the seed for the idea probably goes back to when I was nine years old and for the first time watched a professional baseball game with my father. I loved to play baseball, football, run track races with the neighborhood boys. But what struck me like a thunderbolt that day was that there were no women on that baseball diamond. My ambition to become a professional baseball player was shattered. Throughout my adolescence, in fact, I found a subtle social pressure against being an athlete. I decided on tennis because it was, and still is, more socially acceptable as a sport for girls.
Over my years of playing tennis, I noticed that women’s events received very little coverage in the newspapers and magazines. I used to complain that the sports magazines never gave women a fair shake. The people who published them said, “Well, what can we write about? Women aren’t doing that much.” That’s like putting the cart before the horse or the chicken before the egg. There had to be some way of letting young women know there was a way to make a living playing sports, that their desire to compete and excel wasn’t abnormal. There had to be some vehicle for women who were interested in athletics to find out what was happening for women in all sports. So one day, Larry and I were driving down the Bayshore Freeway and I was complaining again, and Larry says, “Let’s start our own magazine.” I said, “Oh, Larry. Of all the businesses to go into, that’s got to be the most risky.” Especially since we didn’t have much capital. But we felt it was the right time to do it, so we did.
And how is the magazine doing?
It’s small—our circulation’s around 200,000. But that’s a start.
A good start.
Pretty good for a girl, huh? Ha.
Don’t you find some conflict between your role as a publisher and your role as a successful athlete, much in demand for endorsements, and so forth? The first issue of WomenSports seemed to feature Billie Jean King on every page, in the ads as well as in the editorial matter.
The first issue was ridiculous. But I’m trying to stay out of it now. I’m proud of being identified with the magazine, though. I’ve had men come up to me after a match, with WomenSports in their hands, and ask me to autograph their copies. Then they start telling me about their daughters who are having trouble in their sports fields and how much the magazine means to them. I want a very low profile on the magazine; it’s not just for me. It’s for everyone. People on my staff say, “Look, Billie Jean, you’re going to have to write something, more than just the publisher’s letter.” The past two or three months, people have written in: “Where’s Billie Jean?”
Is it possible that you have become, to many of your readers, the personification of WomenSports’ lifestyle, as Hugh Hefner is considered by some to be the personification of the Playboy lifestyle?
Well, I don’t know. I certainly don’t live like he does. First of all, I don’t have the money he has. And high living doesn’t turn me on.
You have to get to bed early, watch your diet?
I have to watch my diet. As far as getting to bed early, I don’t know…. You know what else he has that I don’t? Time. But I don’t think I’d ever want to live the way he does. It’s super for him, if that’s where he’s at.
Lately, some of the sportswriters have started to refer to you in print as sexy. How does that make you feel?
I don’t understand it, but right on!
People want realism, and sports provide that. What they see onscreen, or on TV, is rehearsed, edited, cut. They see me sweating my guts out, missing the ball and getting angry. That’s real.
Dan Wakefield, writing in Esquire, observed that most of his male friends now have their favorite woman tennis player, just as they used to have their favorite movie actress. Do you think it’s possible that woman athletes are replacing film stars as popular idols? Does a guy put up Billie Jean King’s picture in his room today, where a generation ago he might have put up Elizabeth Taylor’s?
That’s happening to a certain degree. I think people want realism, and sports provide that. You can be a superstar celebrity on television, in movies, but people are sophisticated enough now to know that what they see onscreen, or on TV, is rehearsed, edited, cut. They see me going out and hitting a ball, sweating my guts out, missing the ball and getting angry; that’s real. You can’t fake it.
And when Billie Jean King gets mad, she shows it. What sort of things are you yelling out there on the court?
Very bad words. Four-letter words, some of them. I think coaching this year made me worse; it really put me under. I’ve been just terrible. I try not to use those words when I’m around young people—although, actually, I think the young people say worse words than I do.
You once told a reporter that one of your mother’s pet sayings was “Always be a lady.” Are you still a lady, Billie Jean?
I still don’t know what that word means. I used to ask her, “Mother, what does that mean?” And she’d say, “Well, you know.” But I never did. I guess she means “don’t swear, and be gorgeous all the time.” I’m not into that. That’s not the way I am.
You’re first and foremost a tennis player?
Now I think I’m beyond tennis and into sports in general, and into speaking to women and fighting for their rights. Women depend on me and need me, and there’s a lot to be done. I mean, if you look at the budgets for girls in school sports, for example, and compare them with the budgets for boys’ sports, they’re ridiculous—especially at the high school and college levels. I think it’s time we changed the psyche of the country, and not just where women are concerned. I don’t want to see women pressured by society to become housewives and mothers, but I also have empathy for the little boy who doesn’t want to be a superjock and his father says, “You’re going to play in the little league.” I don’t go for that, either. Let the boy do what he wants to do.
As you know, many people feel the feminist movement has created a kind of reverse pressure—to make women feel they ought to have a career, that they owe it to themselves and their sisters. What’s your feeling about that?
If that were the core of the women’s movement, I wouldn’t be interested in it and I don’t think most women would be involved with it. If a woman wants to have a career, I say fine, don’t put her down for it. But if she wants to be a housewife, right on; if she wants to be a mother, that’s beautiful. I want every woman to be able to be whatever she wants to be. That’s what the women’s movement is all about. All we want is for every woman to be able to pursue whatever career or personal lifestyle she chooses as a full and equal member of the society, without fear of sexual discrimination. That’s a pretty basic and simple statement, but it’s hard sometimes to get people to accept it—or even to understand it. And because of the way other people think, it can be even harder to reach the point in your own life where you can live by it.
Somewhere along the line, Billie Jean King, champion tennis player, has become Billie Jean King, champion of women’s lib. Can you trace that evolution for us?
I think the turning point was around 1966 or 1967, when I started realizing that as a woman athlete I had very few opportunities—and that society really didn’t accept women athletes as human beings. It had such negative connotations. And I thought, that’s so stupid, because sports are so much fun, and a lot of women had missed out because it wasn’t acceptable for them to be athletes. And I used to rant and rave about it to Larry, and he’d say, “Well, that’s wonderful. What are you going to do?” And he was the one who said, “Women, first of all, are second-class citizens.” And I said, “Whaddaya mean, whaddaya mean?” And he said because people keep women subservient, by opening doors for them and things.
You don’t like to have doors opened for you?
There’s nothing wrong with it, except that it keeps you down in a way. You’re not assertive enough. Which is true; women do tend to wait for someone else to make a decision. Not so much anymore, but they did.
Anyway, that all gave me something to think about, and then I started trying to see how I could make things change. Starting with sports. Because there were definitely very few, if any, opportunities for a woman to make a career as an athlete, unless she came from a wealthy family or somebody wanted to sponsor her. There again, you’re dependent on somebody else. I didn’t want that; I wanted to help create a vehicle that would work for anyone—rich, poor, any color. I started out working very hard for open tennis, until I found out women’s tennis would suffer very greatly from that, because the men were going to leave us out. So then I channeled my interest into women’s tennis and helped create the women’s circuit. And the way it’s worked out has been tremendous.
So you had sports, not women’s liberation, in mind when you started the circuit?
Women’s liberation was part of it, in that I was trying to create more opportunities, to make us equal. In practice, I was a women’s libber whether I labeled myself that or not. Margaret Court says she’s not a women’s libber, but she definitely is. She’s making her second comeback after two babies and her husband’s going to go on the circuit with her and take care of the babies.
That’s women’s lib?
To me it is. Maybe to somebody else it isn’t. I think it’s great, because they’re happy and for them it’s right.
There was a period during the development of the women’s movement when lesbianism was considered to be a badge of honor. Did——
Some elements of the women’s movement considered lesbianism a badge of honor.
Oh, God. That’s a bunch of bull. I never heard that one.
Then you never felt any psychological pressure to try lesbianism as a way to demonstrate support for women’s liberation?
No. Gay women turn on to me sometimes, gay women’s lib people. I get a lot of letters from them, but they’re OK when I meet them. They don’t make passes at all. They say, “Thank you for what you’re doing to help people be free and to accept each other for what they are.” I think that’s a healthy thing.
Grace Lichtenstein, in her book A Long Way, Baby, about women’s pro tennis, claims there is a split on the circuit between lesbian and heterosexual players. Is that true?
That’s not true. I don’t understand parts of that book at all. I think Grace just wanted to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. She was around only about a month and a half. Maybe a little longer. The book is just her personal opinion.
Well, there is another persistent rumor—this one about you in particular. That is that some time ago you told an interviewer that you were bisexual, but that the article was killed when your sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes, heard about it and threatened to withdraw support from World Team Tennis.
That’s the first time I’ve heard of that rumor, and it’s definitely not true. Although there’s some lesbianism among women athletes—just as there is homosexuality among males—it’s rarely an issue. It isn’t nearly as prevalent as some people seem to think. That’s a misconception people have grown up with—that for a woman to excel in sports she must be more male than female. That’s nonsense. This kind of thinking puts off many young girls who might want to get into sports. Anyway, I don’t think the sex life of athletes is an important issue.
You’re not a lesbian yourself, then?
My sex life is no one’s business, but if I don’t answer your question, people will think I have something to hide, so I’m in a bind. I’m damned if I answer your question and damned if I don’t, but I’ll give you the answer: No, I’m not a lesbian. That’s not even in the ball park for me. But even though that scene isn’t in my bag, I think people should be free to do whatever they want to do and get their pleasure any way they can as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else. I’m for liberation at all levels, be it gay liberation or whatever.
How do you feel about the fairly common view that as women become more emancipated they tend to become tougher, more masculine?
Society today forces women to stand up for what they believe is right, and a woman who stands up for herself is always accused of being masculine. Speaking personally, I’ve found that I have to stand up for myself or else I’ll come out a loser. When I find I’m getting a little hard, I try to catch myself and say, “Billie, you’re getting bitchy,” and cool it.
In my opinion, though, masculine and feminine are words that should be eliminated from our vocabularies. Like having a baby doesn’t make a woman more feminine, anymore than it makes the father more masculine. If a man is gentle, it doesn’t mean he’s less of a man. I think he’s more of a man, and more of a person, yet most people think gentleness is a feminine quality. I don’t think we should get hung up on role playing.
Do you deal much with other recognized spokeswomen for the liberation movement? Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer?
I know Gloria the best of those three. I think she’s a tremendous person, because she has the conviction to try to do what she believes in. Like having enough guts to start Ms. magazine. I really admire her for that. She’s into different things than I am, like politics. She’s never really been into sports. She thinks they’re too violent. I asked her, “Gloria, what are you talking about? Most sports are not violent, they’re just fun.” She said, “Well, I don’t picture it that way, because I grew up in a very poor neighborhood and when I used to walk down the street, I’d see even the bowling-league teams trying to knock each other on the head after the games. I just didn’t want to be around that part of life.” Now, I grew up in Long Beach and I went to the public parks to play softball, play tennis, so that was my experience as a youngster. I grew up thinking sports are fun and games. Gloria’s experience was different, and that’s why to this day I can’t really get her into sports.
You know, another person I really admire who doesn’t get the publicity Gloria gets is Pat Carbine, an editor of Ms. I think she’s a tremendous human being; she has a lot of humor. She helped Larry a lot with getting our magazine started.
Speaking of Ms., how do you feel about being a Mrs.? In your autobiography, you said you were sorry you were married.
Well, marriage can be bunk, except that it makes it easier to be together. Society leaves you alone more if you’re married. But I think the reason I said that in my book was that people had been driving me nuts. They just didn’t understand our relationship at all and they were asking the same questions they’d asked for eight years: Where is your husband? Doesn’t he travel with you? When are you going to retire? Don’t you want kids? And so on. They were always chipping away at me, always expecting me to live up to their own expectations rather than to mine. I think that’s a lot of rubbish, but when you hear it day in and day out, it gets a little heavy and tends to weigh you down. If I were single again, I felt, a lot of those questions would stop, or at least my answers would make more sense to people.
I’ve thought about all that, and I’ve decided that the reason I was getting such heavy pressure from people is that most everybody likes to be reinforced. A housewife would like me to quit and settle down and have babies, because it reinforces her lifestyle, and some men don’t like career women because if their wives went out to work, it might upset the balance of their relationship. Well, that’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it, but it’s not right for me. I believe we should learn to accept people who aren’t into our particular roles. For instance, if I meet a family that loves being together 24 hours a day, then I’m happy for them, although it’s opposite to the kind of life I lead. But in return, I think they should say to me, “Billie Jean, whatever’s right for you is fine with us. You’re OK, I’m OK. Do whatever you choose to do.” If we could just learn to be more tolerant of others, even though they’re not reinforcing our lifestyle, it would be a better world.
There’s been talk for quite a while that you and Larry are planning a divorce. Is there any truth to it?
The rumors got started when we first got married. People said we wouldn’t make it, especially because I was involved in trying to change things. They figured that a woman who’s deeply into women’s lib has to be domineering. But our personalities have never had anything to do with our marriage difficulties. Our difficulties stem from the demands of our careers. When we were married, we were both so young and idealistic that neither of us had any idea what strange and different directions our lives would take because of tennis. I didn’t feel then that I’d be playing too much longer, maybe only three or four years. Then I figured I’d retire and have my kids and settle down as the wife of a successful lawyer. I didn’t really know then that tennis was on the verge of a series of revolutions that would change the game forever, and neither of us had any idea what impact all of that would have on our own lives.
What were the worst years for your marriage?
I think our worst time together was in 1969, right after Larry finished law school. He wanted to live in Hawaii and I said fine, but right away I was miserable. That made my plane trip to the East Coast—where most of the tournaments were held—11 hours. And in the islands, they couldn’t care less about tennis; there just wasn’t anything for me to do there. So I’d hop into Honolulu for a week, and it was great when Larry had time off; but he was just starting to practice law and didn’t have much time off. And when he did, he liked to go swimming. I didn’t, but I’d go lie on the beach and get a suntan. At night we’d usually go out with other lawyers and their wives, but that was another problem. I just couldn’t handle the social scene. I felt lost whenever I was there and for the first time I thought that perhaps Larry and I were on different levels. During the next four years, I thought about divorce a lot, and by the end of 1973, we were both talking about it. But we decided to hang in and now I’m glad we did.
What made you both decide against a divorce?
I’m not sure, except that we both stopped talking about it. Part of the reason was that during the winter of 1973 and 1974 I was caught up in the aftermath of my match with Bobby Riggs and I was trying to get WomenSports off the ground. I was also getting into shape for the 1974 Virginia Slims lour. And Larry was tied up almost daily with World Team Tennis. Even if we had finally decided to go ahead with it, I think neither of us would have had the time to file the papers.
More important, I think we’ve come to a pretty solid understanding about where our relationship is. He’s got his career and I’ve got mine and they’re like two big intersecting circles. At those points where they meet, everything’s great. Where they don’t meet, what can I say except that we can both handle it because we know that’s just the way things are going to be for a few more years. If we had divorced, it wouldn’t have been a traditional split at all, because I’m pretty sure we would have kept on living together. Considering the amount of traveling we both did and the time we were already apart, even a divorce wouldn’t have changed our relationship very much at all.
Actually, Larry and I are very blessed because we have something most couples don’t have, and that is the same type of goals. It sounds cold to me when I hear myself saying that, but our goals are mutual. He works his bahoola off with all the administrative and technical details and I’m out there on the court working my bahoola off. but we’re both working for the same thing: to improve tennis and other sports in this country and to give all people—men and women—an equal opportunity to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves.
Apart from your common goals, how do you and Larry feel about each other now?
I still love him and I know I always will. And I know he loves me. But we disagree on the meaning of love. To him, it’s liking someone the most, and I feel love is something special and far different from liking. I understand what he’s saying, however. He’s just not as emotional as I am. I’m more old-fashioned, and to me love is really indescribable. It’s something extra, something special.
On the other hand, I don’t feel loving each other means Larry and I have to be together 24 hours a day. I don’t think that’s where it’s at, at least not for me. You can’t measure love in time spent together, and too many men get a sense of power from insisting that their wives be with them when they want them. The important thing is wanting to be with someone; then, when you’re together, you really appreciate each other more. You remember the times apart and make more of the time you have together, which I don’t think most people do. But Larry and I are into that now. We really enjoy the time we have together, because it’s precious.
What kind of guy is Larry?
Very busy. His mind is always going. He’s very stubborn. Very intelligent. A lot of us are book smart, but he’s more: He’s book smart as well as being able to fit together the pieces of a problem and make it work.
What’s he like as a husband? Is he jealous?
No. He’s very proud, we’re both proud of what the other has done.
Are you jealous?
Of what? Of Larry? No. I think it’s great. I like to see him get more recognition for what he’s done.
We mean jealous maybe of Larry and other women. Does that ever occur to you?
Oh, yeah, it occurs to me. I would probably be jealous. That’s a good question. I think I’d have to have a pretty good reason before I’d get uptight.
But he’s not really jealous in that sense?
I don’t know if he is or not. He keeps his emotions in. He’s not like me in that sense; I’m much more out front.
How important is tennis to him?
He loves it. He’s working at it, of course, from an administrative point of view. And he goes out and plays every moment he gets. I’m sure I’m the one who got him into it as deeply as he is, but he played tennis before I met him. At least three or four years before I met him.
Well, does he have reason to be jealous? Joyce McGonnigal of Johns Hopkins University was quoted in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated as saying that the audience for women’s sports these days usually consists of “boyfriends, lovers and other strangers.” Do you find men turning on to you, following you around?
Well, the Virginia Slims circuit has its own groupies, fellows who hang around our tournaments. It doesn’t always give me a very good feeling, because I don’t know if they like me as a person or because I’m a celebrity. I have a hunch if I weren’t Billie Jean King, they wouldn’t be interested in me, so I don’t pay much attention to them. Besides, I’m married, so that gives me a little protection. I think. I don’t know.
Have you ever thought of trying an open marriage?
Larry and I talked about it after reading the book Open Marriage and, although it sounds good in theory, I think it would be pretty tough to put into practice. It really depends on the couple. Speaking for myself, I don’t think I could handle it, and I’m not willing to experiment with it, because it might destroy what we already have.
You’ve been married for nearly ten years; by that time, most couples have had at least one child. But in 1972 you made headlines when you admitted to having had an abortion. What were the factors that dictated your decision?
I got pregnant in late February 1971. I took the usual tests and when they came out positive, there was absolutely no question about what I would do. Larry and I agreed on an abortion from the beginning. There was very little discussion about morality involved in our decision; we just both agreed that it was absolutely the wrong time for us to bring a child into the world. Even though we had been married for five and a half years, our marriage was not on as secure a footing then as it is now. We needed more time together by ourselves to see where our relationship was headed. And I was entering a period of great change in my life, personally and professionally, and under the circumstances, I felt it just wasn’t proper to start a family. Additionally, I didn’t want to become a mother unless I could devote myself fully to motherhood and I knew that was something I couldn’t do, wasn’t prepared to do, at the time. So I decided to go ahead with the abortion.
What was it like?
It was the simplest operation I’ve ever had. I went to a hospital in California, was knocked out, had the abortion, spent two hours in the recovery room and later the same day, Larry took me home. There was no pain, no trauma.
The news didn’t get out till more than a year after that. Why didn’t you talk about it?
I didn’t think it was anybody’s business. But I signed a petition for Ms. magazine indicating that I was in favor of legalized abortion. Then Mark Asher, the tennis writer for The Washington Post, asked me directly in an interview whether I’d had an abortion. I hedged the answer, because, although I’d told some close friends about it, I had never told my parents, because I was certain they wouldn’t understand. Asher’s story was headlined “ abortion made possible mrs. king’s top year.” Although Asher hadn’t quoted me as saying I’d had an abortion, he’d put two and two together and the story was out on the wire services and got big play. My parents found out about my abortion from the papers, not from me. Meanwhile, Larry and I went to Hawaii and when we returned to San Francisco for Mother’s Day with my parents, my mom told me she had cried for three days when she read about it. She just didn’t understand. I tried to explain it as well as I could: that Larry and I love kids and want children, but the timing was wrong. Mainly, I was sorry I hadn’t had the guts to tell her myself.
What was the public reaction to news of your abortion?
Hate mail started to come in, most of it unsigned and most of it vicious. But, overall, a lot of good came from it. Several women have told me that just knowing I’d had an abortion made it easier for them to have theirs, and that was really a big plus. Even now, I don’t expect everybody to accept what I did, but it was our choice—Larry’s and mine—and that’s the way I think things like that have to be decided. I certainly don’t want to put my own standards on other people and I don’t want them putting their standards on me.
Do you think, in retrospect, that you did the right thing?
It was the right thing for me at that time, and it was right in the sense that I’ve been able to help other women who may want an abortion but are afraid of censure from friends, family or society. I don’t think every woman is meant to be a mother. A lot of women have children because of social pressures on them, especially from their peer group. Like, when a high school class graduates and some of the girls get married, two years later everybody is supposed to have a baby. That’s just reinforcement of each other’s roles again. That’s got to be changed. I’m not saying, “Don’t have babies.” What I’m saying is, “Make sure you’re doing what you want to do when you bring a child into the world.”
Would you like to have children someday?
Yes, definitely. Larry and I talk about it a lot. I think children are super and I want to have kids by the time I’m 35 just for bodily reasons. But it wouldn’t make any difference to me if I had them in or out of marriage. I know that’ll blow everybody’s mind, but when I have kids, they’ll be Larry’s, whether we’re still married or not.
If you weren’t married to Larry and were free to choose, would you marry a tennis player?
You marry the person you love and not the person’s profession. Many people have a hang-up about marrying someone in the same profession, because if the woman outshines the guy, then all hell breaks loose. But I think that if two people are in the same profession, they should be able to help each other and be more understanding instead of being competitive.
What do you think of the romance between Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors?
I have mixed feelings about that, because I think they’re very young, but I feel they’re good for each other. They know how much it hurts to lose and how good it feels to win, and they can share the ups and downs.
Chris gets a lot of headlines, but not as many as Billie Jean King. How do you feel about being the number-one woman tennis player in terms of public recognition. When Margaret Court may have won more tournaments?
You mean major titles? I have purposely not played in as many major title tournaments as Margaret. I’ve been much more active than she has in starting new things, taking risks. Margaret’s always waited, always been one of the status-quo people. She’s a great tennis player, but she doesn’t like to think of new ideas. She doesn’t like to change. And that’s fine—for Margaret. Not for me. Now, I could have gone around and tried to play all the major tournaments every year, but I worked harder in other areas. She has won more titles. But what are titles? A lot of the titles we win have no depth. I’ve won a lot of titles, but I don’t think they mean anything. It’s who you beat that makes you get turned on.
You and Margaret have been competitors for a long time. In your book Billie Jean, you said you’ve been thinking a lot about going head to head with her in a 25-match series and settling things once and for all. How do you think such a series would turn out?
It’s hard to tell. I think right now, the score would probably be about ten all, with five to go. I’ve become the kind of person who rises to big occasions, and I think I could handle that kind of series of matches better than Margaret, who is very different from me, more mechanical. She’s taller and stronger physically, and I have to depend more on speed and skill and my ability to make more shots. She can’t hit a top-spin backhand and doesn’t have a lot of touch—but she doesn’t need it with her height, whereas I have to depend on it.
We’ve heard a lot about you and about Margaret and about Chris. Are there any good new women players coming up?
Oh, yes, lots. I sometimes wish the media would get off the Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court thing. I think we’ve been overexposed at times. Rosie Casals gets a lot of mileage, but not as much. Well, she hasn’t earned it. In other sports, they’re always talking about the rookies, the new players. We need more new faces. I think with a network TV contract, people will see more new faces, get more of a feeling of depth.
Is there any new player coming up whom you fear?
I always fear all of them, because you never know what may come out of the woodwork. Martina Navratilova. the Czech player, has a lot of ability. She’s very strong. She wants it.
You mean she’s lean and hungry?
She’s pretty chunky. Says she’s going to lose some weight. Sure, I know what you mean. She has talent, ability and, I think, desire.
Speaking of weight, you arc forever swearing off your main food passion, ice cream, in order to shed a few pounds. Do you diet because of your looks or because of tennis?
Tennis. I don’t care what I look like as long as I feel good. I can move better when I’m thinner.
Who do you think is the best player in tennis today?
Rod Laver is probably the best player ever, followed by John Newcombe, who is more consistent and has the best second serve of any player.
What do you think of Ilie Nastase?
I think he’s ridiculous, always trying to put his opponent off. He’s a good enough player not to have to resort to tantrums and theatrics on court—childish gamesmanship. Off the court, however, I really like him as a person. Also, he has a great body. He and Roger Taylor are really gorgeous men.
What do you mean by a gorgeous man? What turns you on about men?
I like to see guys’ legs and their bahoolas, which is probably one reason I like to watch tennis. And I like to see something alive in a man’s face and eyes. Mostly, though, even if I’m turned on physically, I want to know what a man is like as a human being.
Any other male tennis players you admire? What about Connors?
Jimmy was golden at Wimbledon. He was nervous but contained, and he used that nervous energy properly. If you can do that, you’ll play super tennis—and he did.
What do you think is the difference between a champion and a consistent runner-up?
Champions try harder and longer. And on match point against him—at the moment when the whole match is on the line—a champion will suddenly get about three times tougher, while the ordinary good player will just keep on playing at the same pace.
With the exception of Arthur Ashe, there are no black tennis champions, despite the ability blacks have demonstrated in other sports. What’s the reason for that? Is it racial bias?
Well, in many people’s minds, tennis is still a sport not only for the white but for the rich. That’s beginning to change now, but you have to remember that it’s only recently that we began opening the doors for all income levels. In five or ten years, you’re going to see a lot of top players who are black or members of other minority groups, but they’re probably only 12 or 13 years old now. You don’t develop champions overnight.
Why do you think Ashe hasn’t made it to number one?
Because he can’t compromise. He hits every ball too hard. And I don’t think he ever thinks for himself. He’s pretty much a follower, not a leader. Nevertheless, he’s done exceptionally well and has made it to the finals in a lot of World Championship Tennis tournaments. Personally, I always wanted Arthur to do better, because I like him. But I don’t think he’ll ever be number one.
How do you think you’d stand up against Ashe or some of the other top male players today?
I wouldn’t have a chance against them. For that matter, some of the senior players today—such as Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura and Tony Trabert—would kill me. I’ve always said that. First of all, they’d beat me on sheer strength; and they’d have a psychological edge.
How much of that is psychological edge? Why is a little Ken Rosewall faster and stronger than a big Margaret Court?
I’m not sure that he’s faster and stronger. What people don’t realize is that there’s a huge overlap, a physical overlap, between men and women, and between different men and different women. Margaret Court is much taller and stronger than I am. Stan Smith is much taller and stronger than Ken Rosewall. But we all play one another.
People always try to put women on one side of the fence and men on the other. You can’t do that. You can’t do that in brain power. You can’t do it in physical power. There is an overlap. I may not be the number-one tennis player in the men’s division, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t hold my own somewhere in the men’s division. Especially if I had conditioned myself for it for 20 years the way many of the men have. Women aren’t going to catch up overnight, just like the blacks and other minorities aren’t going to catch up overnight. It will take a while.
I don’t like to win against men. But these are young women on the staff of our magazine who say, ‘Oh, I love to beat my boyfriend, because he gets so upset.’ Well, now, that’s got to be a switch.
But it’s been said that women are afraid to win against men. Is that true?
Yes. I am. I don’t like to win against men. It doesn’t make me feel good at all, and I know it’s because of my conditioning. There are young women on the staff of our magazine who say, “Oh, I love to beat my boyfriend, because he gets so upset.” Well, now, that’s got to be a switch! That’s the other extreme.
When you play Larry, does he expect you to beat him?
No, he gives me a go. He’s getting better. Probably in five more years, he’ll start beating me—and I’ll get really ticked.
Why didn’t Bobby Riggs do better against you?
Because he wasn’t in shape and he underestimated me after his match with Margaret Court. If Riggs were to play Gonzales, Pancho would tear him apart, because Bobby isn’t even the best senior; he’s just the best promoter. I think Riggs is a nice, amusing guy, though, and he’s been good for tennis.
Do you think we’ll ever see another man-versus-woman match in a different sport—and, if so. what?
I’m sure there’ll be other times. Golf, maybe.
What woman golfer is good enough to challenge Jack Nicklaus?
I didn’t challenge a John Newcombe. I beat an old man. What if Carol Mann and Doug Sanders played? They’re both great golfers. But I’m not sure it would have the same kind of drama, because ours was the first. Bobby Riggs is an unusual personality. I think the combination is going to be difficult to find.
Just before the Riggs match, your husband went on TV and read a statement explaining why Gene Scott was doing the color instead of ex-champion Jack Kramer, who’s head of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Larry made it clear that you don’t like Kramer and didn’t want him in the press box. When did the feud start?
That goes back to the time in the Pacific Southwest Championships when he screwed us up. I walked off, I was so mad at him. He was the official referee and when we had a dispute over line calls, he couldn’t be bothered to come down to the court to make the final decision. He was up in the TV box. He could have been down on that court in 20 seconds. I asked for him and asked for him and he wouldn’t come down. I said, “That’s it. I’m not playing.” That just did it for me. Up yours, Jack. Why should I give him world-wide exposure? He doesn’t like women’s tennis, which is fine. But he won’t admit it. He’s two-faced. I don’t like two-laced people. He really is. I don’t think Jack cares about anybody but Jack. The male players work for him; he doesn’t work for them.
Your share of the Riggs match combined with your income from TV commercials, advertisements, promotions and other enterprises related to tennis probably brought you an income of more than a million dollars in 1974. That’s a tremendous amount of money for a tennis player to earn, especially a woman. Don’t you agree?
It’s a lot of money for anyone to earn. Larry’s the only one who can tell you exactly what my income last year was, because he handles the books. I have a question for you, though: Do female entertainers get paid less than male entertainers? No. Their pay depends on whether they draw at the box office. Entertainment value, getting people through the turnstiles, that’s the name of the game. One of the things we’re trying to do in World Team Tennis is to enhance the entertainment value of the sport.
Is that why W.T.T. allows, even encourages, yelling and rooting during a match? The Hawaii Leis, whose name has inspired a series of bad jokes, passed out megaphones to their fans during a recent match. Pittsburgh has its rally girls, the Goola-gongs, and the Boston Lobsters have as their cheerleading mascot a guy dressed up in a red lobster suit with a racket in one claw and shocking-pink panty hose peeking out from under his tail. In Philadelphia, a huge replica of the Liberty Bell rings every time the Freedoms win a set. As a player, don’t you find all this hoopla disconcerting?
Not at all. I love partisan crowds, for me or against me. Part of being a good tennis player is being able to put up with that and keep your concentration. The point is that we want people to get involved with tennis the way they’re involved with other sports. They don’t sit on their hands when they’re watching a football or basketball game, so why should they sit quietly to watch tennis?
The point scoring in each W.T.T. game is one, two, three, four, rather than the traditional 15, 30, 40, game. And if a game goes to three–three, the player who scores the next point wins; there are no advantages or deuces. Do you think this new no-ad system will become popular in other tournaments?
Yes, I do. It’s much better, because it makes the game more crucial, and the more crucial points you have, the more involved the fans get—although it’s much tougher on the players mentally, because they can’t let up. And because the games don’t go on endlessly, with advantages in and out, old-timers such as Roy Emerson, who’s 39, Fred Stolle, 35, and Maria Bueno, 34, can keep up their careers and perhaps stay on as coaches. We’ve extended the playing life of the top pros, and that’s all to the good.
Another unique feature of W.T.T. is its format for play: one set each of women’s singles, men’s singles, women’s doubles and men’s doubles, with a ten-minute break before concluding with mixed doubles—although not always with the same players, which means that none of the players gets much of a workout. Do you like that format?
Most of the men I’ve talked with agree that the traditional five-set match is ridiculous, because they all have such heavy schedules. I also think the audience gets bored with long matches. In W.T.T., we go to six all and then play a nine-point tie breaker, which makes every point more dramatic for the spectators. It’s easier on the promoter, too, because he can schedule a lot of matches, which has got to be a plus from his point of view as well as the fans’, who want to see a lot of tennis players in action. People don’t want to see stamina; they want to see skill.
What part of the format do audiences seem to like most?
Mixed doubles. I think mixed doubles is by far the most exciting form of tennis.
Because there’s immediate identification for everybody in the audience. A man looks at Smith and wonders, “Could I do that?” If it’s a woman, she wonders if she could return that guy’s serve.
We’re still not making tennis fun enough for enough of the public, but we’re getting there. I want the players to have better, more informative introductions on television, for example. I want to help other players learn how to express themselves better, because they’re the future stars. It’s like show business. The stars have to be personalities, not just great tennis players anymore.
Like movie stars?
Court stars. It’s the same thing.
Are you still in tennis because you love it—or are you in it for the money?
Money doesn’t make me try harder and never has. I just want to go out and do my best, and I firmly believe that’s the way most athletes are. When I’m at a table, negotiating a contract, I try to get the most I can, but once the contract is signed, I don’t think it makes any difference. Some individuals, and I’m one of them, are going to bust a gut day in and day out because that’s the way they are as human beings. And the ones who won’t bust a gut aren’t going to make it.
Another thing that motivates me is fear of failing. On the way up, there’s always that insidious, nagging fear that you’re not quite going to make it, that in the crunch you’re going to come up just a bit short. And once you reach the top, there’s the absolute dread of the day when it’s all going to end. You can never win enough titles, or money, or awards, because people always expect you to do it one more time and, of course, you come to expect it of yourself. Tennis may be pretty insignificant in the over-all picture, but for those few hours during a match, it really is life or death.
Were you depressed after losing at Wimbledon in 1974?
Of course I was. Winning is almost a relief, and you tend to forget a victory; but losing always hurts—and you always remember that. Olga Morozova played me to a I at Wimbledon, so I have no excuses—but I’m still upset about it. I was depressed and angry with myself for 24 hours and I didn’t want to see people. But their I started working a lot harder. I had given up ice cream for five months and was the thinnest I’ve ever been and running every day, which, at 30 years of age, was a lot harder on me than it was a few years ago—and then to lose anyway! Man, that’s not easy to handle. But I know that on any given day I may lose, because there are people today who can beat me. I think that’s what makes an athlete humble. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Victory is fleeting, but losing is forever.
Was there a turning point in your life when you decided that you could be number one?
Yes, and ironically, it was a defeat that told me I could become number one. The turning point came during the summer of 1965 at Forest Hills, when I lost to Margaret Court. I had beaten her once at Wimbledon, in 1962, but lost 14 consecutive matches to her after that. In the first eight games of the first set in '65, I played fantastically well and built a five–three lead but lost the set, eight–six. The same thing happened in the second set: I had a five–three lead and even got to 40–15, double set point, on my serve in the tenth game. But then Margaret picked herself up and I didn’t. I played carefully and didn’t cut loose. Certain players never develop this ability. They play brilliantly and steadily to the last point and then they choke, which is what I had been doing.
During the trophy presentation, I suddenly realized that I’d had the match in my hands and then didn’t go for the kill. I knew then that I could beat Margaret—and anyone else in the world, too. It came to me just as clear as a bell: I really could be number one. The next time I played Margaret was in the finals of the South African Nationals in April 1966, and I beat her easily, six–three, six–two. Three months later, we played again in the semifinals at Wimbledon and again I won, easily. I finally had the right mental attitude.
What do you love most about the game?
The perfect shot. I’ve made only a few, but I can still remember them. It’s a beautiful feeling, just like an orgasm; thrills and chills all through your body. But once it’s over, it’s over, and after you get the check or the trophy, all you think of is the next match. You never linger. But I remember one of the most satisfying shots I’ve ever hit was during the 1972 Wimbledon final against Evonne Goolagong. Neither of us was outstanding that day and I was playing just to win the match as best I could and get off the court. I kept going down the line on my backhand all afternoon—that’s the percentage shot—but there was just enough of a crosswind to hold the ball up in the air long enough for Evonne to run it down. So I waited and told myself that on match point I’d do just the opposite and bomb a cross-court shot. I served. She returned down the line to my backhand and I just snapped a short top-spin shot cross court, catching her off balance, prepared to cover down the line. My shot was a winner. I threw my racket into the air and thought, I did it! I hit a perfect shot!
Do you always play to win?
Not always, and never in social tennis, when I just try to keep the ball in play so everyone has a good time. And I suppose I shouldn’t say it, because most people will never believe it, but I have let up a couple of times in matches because I felt sorry for my opponent. But that’s rare. I usually play my best.
Could you tell us whom you’ve let up on?
I could, but I won’t.
You’ve said in the past that you consider tennis an art form. In what way?
When tennis is played properly, it’s capable of getting an emotional, almost sensual, reaction from both players and audience—one similar to that you might feel when you hear a great piece of music. I always thought that way, even when I was a child learning to play. That’s why, when I was 12 years old and our minister, Bob Richards, the Olympic pole-vault champion, asked me what I was going to do with my life, I said, “I know exactly what I’m going to do, Reverend. I’m going to be the best tennis player in the world.”
Do you consider yourself a religious person?
Not now. I was then. There was a time when I thought of being a missionary. I’d probably consider myself an agnostic now. I don’t go to church. Stan Smith is really into religion, and I think that’s great for him. He says the written word in the Bible tells you how to live your life. I think it’s most important that you figure it out. I think it’s pretty obvious how to live; you don’t try to hurt others. I think the spirit of God or whatever is within … people. I almost said man; can you believe it? I’m conditioned.
I realize now that being number one isn’t glamorous. It’s more like being the fastest gun in the West. You can never let up, because you have to prove yourself against all comers.
In what ways other than in your attitude toward religion have you changed over the years?
In the beginning of my career, when I was a chubby little prodigy from Long Reach, I wanted everybody to love Billie Jean King, and I was certain that when I became a champion, they’d love me even more. Now I know that it doesn’t matter whether people love me. What matters is that I love myself and make myself happy; then I can give love and happiness to others, and it’s not important that they return it to me. And I realize now that being number one isn’t glamorous. It’s more like being the fastest gun in the West. You can never let up, because you have to prove yourself against all comers.
At the moment, you’re not number one—at least not as far as the U. S. Lawn Tennis Association is concerned. You’ve just been replaced by Chris Evert as the top-ranked woman tennis player on the U.S.L.T.A. list. How did that strike you, in view of the fact that you beat Chris two out of three times last year?
Chris had a good year and she deserved what she got. Rankings don’t bother me. In the beginning, I was naïve enough to think that being a champion would solve all my problems, but it often creates more than it solves.
How has your lifestyle changed in the past few years?
Well, for about six years, Larry and I had an apartment with a bed, a fold-out couch, a stereo, a small desk and a huge painting heavy on the blacks and grays and blues, done by a friend of ours in 30 seconds with a spray gun. No furniture. It was really something out of Future Shock. Then, just recently, we moved to a new apartment in San Mateo near our magazine and offices. But I haven’t seen it yet and I’m sure one of the secretaries did the furnishing, because I don’t have the time and there are so many other things on my mind right now. I like things neat and organized—as long as I don’t have to do them. And here in Philadelphia, I have a three-story house on Society Hill that was built in 1730 and restored. It’s a blast. I have somebody come in once a week to clean and pick up and I cook for myself. Dick Butera, who owns the Freedoms, found the house and organized the help. I wouldn’t make it, with my lifestyle, unless everyone were very helpful.
Do you take things with you when you travel, to give you the feeling of being at home?
I like being mobile, so I’m not big on that at all. I used to carry records with me, but then I had to stop doing it because of the weight and bulk. But now that I’m more or less based in Philadelphia, I’ve bought a great stereo and a tape recorder and I’m putting everything I like on tape—Gladys Knight and the Pips, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Helen Reddy, Chér. But I think Elton John is probably my favorite. I burn incense and listen to my records.
Have you ever smoked grass?
Yes, I tried it, but I didn’t like it. It’s just not my trip. Generally speaking, I don’t think people should smoke anything, because it’s bad for them.
Isn’t that something of a contradiction, when you’ve been so heavily involved in tournaments sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer?
The Virginia Slims people have never encouraged us to smoke. They just try to get people who already smoke to switch to Virginia Slims. They get a lot out of the promotion—four years ago, they were number 50, and now they’re in the top 20 brands—but so do we.
Anyway, about pot, I shouldn’t put my own trip on everybody else. If people enjoy pot and they know about the harm it can do and they still want to use it, that’s their business.
Do you feel the same way about pornography?
To my way of thinking, pornography is in the eyes of the viewer. You and I can look at the same picture or read the same book and you might get turned on while I don’t. So what may be pornographic for you isn’t for me. Anyway, I don’t know why people get hung up on such things, which I don’t think hurt anybody.
Have you ever seen a porn film?
Larry and I went together to see Deep Throat but left halfway through it. I wanted to see it all, but Larry wanted to leave.
Did you like it?
It was OK, but too repetitious. I’d probably go to see more porn films if I had the lime, because I’m curious. I guess I want to try everything once. Well, maybe not everything—so don’t ask what I haven’t tried yet.
In your recent autobiography, you wrote that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged had done much to change your life. How?
Sometime in the spring of 1972, a friend of mine rushed up to me with a copy of Atlas Shrugged and said, “You’ve got to read this. You’re Dagney Taggart.” During the next few months, I read the book and thought about it a lot and realized that she was right, that in a lot of ways I was like Dagney Taggart. That book told me a lot about why other people reacted to me, sometimes pretty strongly, the way they did. I can’t summarize the book in a paragraph or two, but it seemed to me that the two main themes were right on target: how an intense love for something can be a source of strength as well as weakness, and how success can sometimes breed envy, resentment and even hate. The book really turned me around, because, at the time, I was going through a bad period in tennis and thinking about quitting. People were constantly calling me and making me feel rotten if I didn’t play in their tournament or help them out. I realized then that people were beginning to use my strength as a weakness—that they were using me as a pawn to help their own ends and if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up losing myself. So, like Dagney Taggart, I had to learn how to be selfish, although the word selfish has the wrong connotation. As I see it, being selfish is really doing your own thing. Now I know that if I can make myself happy, I can make other people happy—and if that’s being selfish, so be it. That’s what I am.
When you were growing up, who were your heroes and heroines?
I didn’t have any. I always thought it important to have your own thing. I wasn’t up on the film stars of the time, because I didn’t have money to go to the movies when I was young. So most of the people I admired were sports figures like Hank Aaron. It’s funny how it all worked out for him. I always thought when he was a youngster that he was unappreciated. Great wrists. Love those wrists.
What kind of people—sports figures, movie stars, whoever—would you most like to spend your time with?
The trouble with my life now is that I rarely have time to spend with anyone but the team, and it’s a pretty narrow life. That’s one of the reasons I’m cutting down on my schedule, so I can start spending time with other people and maybe get out in the world and learn a little. Everyone has something to offer. But, to answer your question, my best friend is my former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, and some of the tennis players, such as Fred Stolle and Vicki Berner, are fun to be with. I’d also like to see more of Marcos Carriedo, who introduced Larry and me at college. Dick Butera is a good friend and a riot; he’s interested in the world around him. And Elton John has been super to us. I’d like to see more of him, too.
Why didn’t you mention Rosemary Casals as a friend?
Didn’t I? Over the years that Rosie and I were friends and partners on the court, she often told me that she wanted to be number one. OK. But I think she envied my position so much that she came to hate me. She tried not to, but I felt she did and, although we’re still friends, it’s difficult for her, because we’re in the same profession and the media keep her in my shadow. It’s just not good for either of us. Another girl I used to be friendly with is Kristien Kemmer, a left-handed player. One day she said to me, “I can’t be around you anymore, because I want to be the best, and when I’m with you, I see all the attention you get and it’s just not good for me.”
Doesn’t that kind of honesty turn you off?
No, it turns me on. The best thing about it is that Kristien and I are good enough friends to be honest and open. But Rosie wouldn’t come out with it; I had to pull it out of her. Kristien was so open that there was no way I couldn’t accept it. But it’s sad, in a way, that I can’t be friends with some of the people I like, because it means I end up being on my own a lot and more lonely.
Do you find it difficult to make friends?
You have to understand that most of the people I meet are tennis players, and sometimes it’s easy for me to be their friend but difficult for them to be mine. I figure I’ll have a lot more friends after I phase out and I’m not in competition with them anymore. Most of the top male players in tennis are my friends. We all help one another, and that’s as good a basis for friendship as you can find.
We’ve heard that among the male players, the Australians are legendary drinkers. Is that true?
What about the women?
No, women athletes drink a lot less than men. I suppose it’s image again, the way we were brought up. But women athletes are also very serious about their sport, about keeping in shape. The men— Australian, American, anybody—drink a lot more than the women.
Do women tennis players engage in the kind of backslapping, locker-room repartee that men do?
Oh, we talk about men all the time.
Oh, yeah. Who’s got the best body. We’re very physically oriented, anyway.
Do you ever say things like, “Boy, would I like to have a roll in the hay with that guy”?
Oh, yeah. Sure. The locker room is exactly like that. That’s exactly how we talk. You got it!
I’ll say one thing the women don’t do that men do, though. They don’t talk about it. Maybe to their best friend, but that would be it. Otherwise, they don’t say, “Oh, this guy was really great in bed” or “That guy was lousy,” or whatever. That’s the big difference. Women don’t feel they have to boast about it. For some reason, men have been convinced that they’d better be able to talk about it. I always wondered about their talk: whether they’re talkers or doers.
We haven’t talked much about another aspect of your career—your coaching. A recent article in The New York Times said you’d have to be considered, along with Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins and Fred Shero of the Philadelphia Flyers, as the coach of the year. Do you like being a coach?
Yes. I enjoy being Big Momma, and it’s gratifying to see the players improve. Julie Anthony has really come up this year. Brian Fairlie’s serve has gotten better and Fred Stolle played better than at any time in the past five years. Fred was especially important to us, not only as team captain but as a good coach, too. 1 grew up in team sports, and that’s the way the American psyche is conditioned. Everyone helps everyone else. The players develop more as human beings when they’re part of a team. They remain in dividuals, but they’re an integral part of the whole unit.
Will we ever see women coaches in other sports—pro football, for example?
Of course. Someday a woman will be a coach in pro football or basketball or a manager in baseball. A woman can do anything if she studies and if she’s qualified.
How long is that going to take? About 20 years?
Last November, when you turned 31, you said you were at a crossroads in your life. What did you mean?
I meant I really don’t know where I’m at right now. The next decade should be the best of my life, and while I’m physically healthy, I think I should take advantage of those years. I don’t know if I want to settle down and have kids right away. I’m getting a lot of pressure to go into politics.
Friends, college kids, people who write to me and stop me on the street and say, “Billie Jean, we need help.” Politics doesn’t appeal to me, though. You have to glad-hand people for their votes 52 weeks a year to get into office and stay there, and all the precious time you spend glad-handing and ass kissing takes you away from the job you should be doing.
What I’ve said today may not be what I think tomorrow, because the whole process of learning and maturing is change. The one thing I’m positive about is that I want to see certain things happen in this country. I want to see more women—not necessarily me—in politics, and I want to see sports change. But I don’t know what role I want to play in effecting these changes. I need time to think it all over in peace, to take a deep breath and maybe sit on the beach and watch the waves breaking for a while. See you when I get back—maybe with a few answers.