A Conversation With Billie Jean King

We chat with the tennis legend and human-rights pioneer about the Washington Kastles, criminal justice, gay marriage, and how she got Elton John to write her that song.

By: Brett Haber

Billie Jean King, shown here in 2009. Photograph by Flickr user david_shankbone.

This summer the Washington Kastles return to the Southwest DC waterfront to defend their 2011 World Team Tennis title. Last year, coach Murphy Jensen and company authored the first perfect season (16-0) in the 36-year history of the league, and when they hoisted the trophy that jubilant night in Charleston, it bore the name of the league’s founder and longtime champion, Billie Jean King.

Of course, World Team Tennis is just a tiny section of King’s massive folio of accomplishments. On the court, she is among the most decorated players in the history of the game—male or female—having won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 39 slams if you count doubles. Off the court, she has been a tireless advocate for the rights of women, gays, and just about anyone else she feels has been on the business end of injustice. She is, without risk of hyperbole, a national treasure. I have known Billie for many years, and I’m pleased to call her both a friend and an occasional broadcast partner. I chatted with her this week about the upcoming World Team Tennis season, as well as several other far-flung topics. As usual, she was not short on opinions.

This will be year five for World Team Tennis in Washington. Aside from being your defending champs, how have the Kastles done in terms of penetrating this market?

You know, I just think what Washington has done—completing the perfect season last year—was incredible. And [Kastles owner] Mark Ein is exactly what we want from ownership. He’s great for the league—not good, he’s great. He’s willing to spend money to invest for the future, and that’s the kind of owner we want. Obviously, we’re a smaller scale than the NFL or the NBA, but it’s still all the same qualities that you need in an owner to make an impact.

Venus and Serena Williams are playing for Washington again this summer. Can you believe they’re both in their thirties now?

I know. It’s unbelievable. I’ve known them for more than 20 years. In fact, when they were maybe nine and ten, we had a World Team Tennis clinic in Long Beach, California, and that’s where I met them. And they always remember that—that we came out and we were there to help them, and that’s why they’re so committed to turning around and doing the same for kids today. That’s why they love playing in Washington every year. Also because their sister Isha lives in Washington, and I know they love getting to spend time with her.

Many people don’t know the story of Elton John and his hit song “Philadelphia Freedom”—that it was written for you and the World Team Tennis franchise by the same name. How exactly did that come to pass with him?

It was so amazing. I played for Philadelphia my first year, 1974. I had met Elton John in ’73. Elton started to come out to the Freedom matches and sit on the bench. And we made sure he had a uniform, and he was like our cheerleader, our surrogate coach—and he just loved it. When he wasn’t touring, he’d come. He loved tennis. So one time we’re going to one of his concerts, and we’re sitting in the backseat of a car, and he goes, “I want to write a song for you.” And I think he’s kidding, and he says, “No, I’m serious. What are we going to call it?” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I have no idea.” And then he says, “How about if we call it ‘Philadelphia Freedom?’” And he wrote it in the summer of ’74, just after the team tennis season, and it became number one. It was a very big hit. I think we have the best signature song in sports, and nobody ever talks about it. I mean, it’s an amazing story, I think.

Let’s quickly touch on some other topics. This year is also the 40th anniversary of Title IX. And as one of the women who’s been at the forefront of equal opportunity in sports and in every walk of life, what are your thoughts on the impact that ruling has had four decades later?

Well, it’s incredible. And it didn’t just impact sports. Before 1972, if you wanted to be a doctor at Harvard, they only had a 5 percent quota. I met a woman the other day who said her mother was in a class of 500 and they only had 12 women. And what ’72 did is open up the doors and never let that happen again. And now 54 percent of the college enrollment is women. And it would never have happened if it hadn’t been for Title IX.

How gratified were you to hear the President come out in support of gay marriage a few weeks ago?

I was thrilled. I know it’s been hard on him because he’s trying to win an election, but it’s the right thing to do. I appreciate it as a gay person, and I think it should be a non-issue. I can’t believe in 2012 it’s still an issue, but it is. I was thrilled about [the repeal of] “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I’m thrilled about this. I think he’s been very good to the LGBT community.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame, of which you’re a member, recently dropped its inquiry into former player Bob Hewitt and the sexual abuse crimes he allegedly committed against young women whom he was coaching years ago. You played mixed doubles with Hewitt. As someone who knows him, someone who is in the Hall of Fame alongside him, what are your thoughts on where his case stands?

I don’t feel good about Bob Hewitt. I played mixed with him. We won the French Open together in 1970. I’m not happy. I am very upset, and he needs to be in jail. If he’s guilty, which it looks like he is, he should be on trial. Of course, he’s innocent until proven guilty. But he’s far away. He’s in South Africa. He’s not in America. It’s a whole thing with the statute of limitations. That law should not have any statute of limitations, for sure.

Author’s Note: Hewitt is alleged to have sexually assaulted women both in the United States and in his native South Africa. While the statute of limitations in this country prohibits law enforcement from pursuing charges against Hewitt so many years after the alleged crimes, there are no such limitations in South Africa. After a recent investigations by HBO’s Real Sports and the Boston Globe shed light on the allegations against Hewitt, including first-hand accounts from several of his alleged victims, South African officials have launched a criminal investigation.

Editor’s Note: Brett Haber is currently in Paris, where he is broadcasting the French Open for Tennis Channel. If you have a question for Brett while he is in France, contact him via Twitter at @bretthaber.