There’s no bigger legend in the world of tennis than Billie Jean King. So it was a surprise, pleasure and a major coup to have her Zooming in for a chat before she left New York to come to Wimbledon as part of the BBC's team led by her great friend and former tennis rival Sue Barker.
Billie Jean is a superstar who changed the game in the early 1970s by putting women’s tennis on the map and enabling top women stars to play professionally for prize money. She won the Wimbledon singles six times and 20 titles there overall including her doubles success.
Her life in the early 1970s as she strove to get better treatment for women players was portrayed by Emma Stone in the hit movie Battle of The Sexes, about her 1973 match with veteran men's champion Bobby Riggs. Billie famously beat Bobby in that Texas match watched by 90 million as she became a mover and shaker for social change at the time. Vociferous, pushy, and determined to do what was right, she quite rightly is an icon.
So here are Billie Jean's thoughts on this year's Wimbledon, some tips for success in tennis, and her wonderful memories of the past…
How much does it mean to you to go back to Wimbledon?
Billie Jean King says: "It’s so wonderful. I’ve been going every year since 1961 and we couldn’t go last year. I was pretty upset. I think what COVID has done for everyone is made us much more grateful for everything in our lives so some good comes out of this. I enjoy giving my opinions on Wimbledon matches players for the BBC, at every opportunity! Sue Barker is so nice. All the team are nice but Sue really is our superstar. She recently got awarded a CBE by the Queen, which is wonderful and so deserved. I knew her as a player and she’s great because she played at Wimbledon, so she really understands what it feels like for the players. She told me a long time ago, back in our playing days, that she wanted to get into broadcasting, and she loved every sport, not just tennis. I told her to go for it and look where she is now! She’s a true superstar."
Which players do you think will do well at Wimbledon 2021?
Billie Jean says: "There are always surprises and I think every generation gets better. I’m in my 70s so I’ve seen many generations change. The women have more depth than ever and therefore I don’t know if anybody really stands out. Whereas with the men I think you have to go with Novak Djokovic because right now he’s the greatest player in the world. I guess Nadal said he can’t play. That’s too bad but I understand his reasoning, as he wants to keep playing as long as possible because it’s so obvious he loves the sport. I’ve been in his situation as I played until I was 40 so I have a little bit of an understanding of what he must be feeling."
Do you think this Wimbledon is Serena’s best chance to get the record 24th Grand Slam?
Billie Jean says: "I don’t know. I’m not sure she’s as fit as she needs to be. Every generation the ball is hit harder. So these newer players coming up are tough. When Serena really smacks the ball they don’t mind it now. If she’s really fit, organised, concentrating properly and staying in the now she can do well. She needs to go to the net more and be more aggressive though. Her serve is still the most beautiful serve ever in the history of our sport."
Can you remember how it feels to play a Wimbledon final?
Billie Jean says: "That never leaves. You always go back to your wonderful memories of finals, both the mental and emotional thoughts. You need to really focus to overcome nerves in a final. My trick was, if I were up by two I’d pretend I was down by two and I have to win the next game to stay in the match. That helped me a lot. I was intense and had a temper but I could compartmentalize very quickly and could come back quickly from setbacks.
"Arthur Ash did that in his final with Jimmy Connors in 1975. You could see him close his eyes. I don’t know what he was doing but it’s kind of a relaxation thing. That’s what separates the great players from the others. The mind is such a good weapon in tennis. It’s having your head, your heart, and your guts integrated as one. If you’re watching a match you can see when one of those elements is missing in a player."
What were your most memorable moments in Wimbledon finals?
Billie Jean says: "I actually loved doubles more than singles so for me it was winning mixed with Owen Davidson. Winning my first Wimbledon was exciting in the women’s doubles in 1961 with Karen Hantze, as no one expected it. I was only 17. My first singles win in 1966 against Maria Bueno in three sets was special. The first wins in tournaments are always really good. And the last, like the 1975 final with my frizzy perm!
"Meeting Chris Evert in the 1973 final was terrific too. I really changed up my game and decided not to serve and volley so much. I did all sorts of things which threw Chris and the plan came off, which is always nice. There are a lot of great memories. I don’t think anyone young in England has ever seen me win a final, however, because every time it rains the BBC seems to show my 1969 and 1970 losses to Ann Jones and Margaret Court."
Do you catch up with Ann Jones when you’re at Wimbledon?
Billie Jean says: "We check in yes. We were contract pros together in 1968/69. She beat Margaret Court in the semis in 1969, then beat me in the final when I double faulted on match point. I was happy for Ann, though, very happy."
Is going to Wimbledon a great chance for you to meet up with former players and tennis friends?
Billie Jean says: "We do all connect but a lot of us text all year anyway. A lot of the time when the ex players and friends come to Wimbledon, we always get together at least once or twice during the fortnight and have a good catch up or dinner out. Betty Stove can’t come this year sadly so that’s going to be a little different as we always met up with each other."
What are the greatest Wimbledon finals you’ve ever seen?
Billie Jean says: "The Bjorg v McEnroe finals were epic. Bjorg winning five straight was amazing and his first win was the start of a new generation in the 1970s. Rod Laver was always amazing to watch in a final. He had such great top spin on his forehand. Martina and Chris had the greatest rivalry ever in the game so their Wimbledon finals were ones to savour."
We all loved the movie Battle Of The Sexes. In terms of the age gap, what match would you like to see as the modern equivalent? How about Serena play John McEnroe?
Billie Jean says: "John McEnroe has been trying for years to get that to happen. I don’t think it’s the same time in history. It wouldn’t have the same caché. Most people don’t realize Martina played Jimmy Connors in the 1980s. We had 90million people watching Bobby Riggs and I play. I don’t think there have ever been 90 million people watching tennis again. The movie really wasn’t about tennis though. It was about the social change of the era. There was a lot of pressure on that match I can tell you that."
What can you tell us about your fight for equality in women's tennis?
Billie Jean says: "We’re the generation — especially the 'original nine' — who made tennis pro for women players so I’m very proud of that. It was really gutsy. I thought we were going to get suspended but we didn’t care. We were willing to absolutely have our career smashed for the future. We wanted any girl in the world if she were good enough to finally have a place to compete because in 1968 to 1970 things were not good for women. We were getting less and less prize money or they were dropping our tournaments and we were desperate so we signed the 'one-dollar contract' to start a tour.
"We also wanted to be recognized for our accomplishments not only our looks because it was always about our looks in those days and finally, the most important reason because amateurs would make $14 a day, it was to finally make a living playing tennis . We finally got equal prize money in 2007 and it was very appropriate that Venus Williams was the front person for our fight. The US Open was the first tournament to go equal so it took from 1973 till 2007. It sends a really strong message about equality. It’s more about the message to me than the money. I don’t have to worry about the money these kids make nowadays."
Your autobiography comes out this summer. How did you find writing it?
Billie Jean says: 'Yes it's called All In, as that’s how I live my life. Everyone teases me ‘that’s easy, your title should be All In Billie.’ That’s how that came about. This took four years, there’s a lot of stuff in there. I was given the audio for the book in New York and I spent two hours just tidying everything up and I broke down a few times, I had to stop. It’s rough. It’s about sexuality, about eating disorder, it’s about a lot of things that people can relate to.
"With mental illness coming to the forefront because of what Naomi Osaka did and said recently we’ve all had to deal with that stuff. I’m a big believer in psychotherapy. It's made my life much better and easier. The book comes out August 17. One of my lucky numbers is 17. My younger brother Randy played professional baseball which in the States is a really big deal and he wore 17! I live on the 17th floor in New York, where I can see the ballet through the window across the street in the Lincoln Centre. I won my first doubles at Wimbledon with Karen Hantze at 17. When people say what age did you like and I always say 17. It was a wonderful year."
How to watch Wimbledon 2021
In the USA, ESPN will provide complete TV coverage of Wimbledon. ESPN remains available on every cable and satellite provider, and on every major streaming service. That includes YouTube TV, Hulu With Live TV, and Sling TV, among others.
If you're in the market for a new streaming service, we recommend taking a look at FuboTV. In addition to carrying ESPN and having a slate of channels that rivals any of the other options above, FuboTV also is comparable in terms of price.
In the UK, coverage of Wimbledon 2021 can be watched on both BBC1 and BBC2, with Sue hosting and former champions John McEnroe and Billie Jean King being part of the BBC team, plus there's coverage on radio and online. Play starts on Monday, June 28, and goes through to Sunday, July 11 with coverage on BBC1, BBC2, radio, and online.
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