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Tennis star Billie Jean King talks about her passion for people, the joys of giving back and equal opportunity. She contributed to the renovation of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department's Hunting Park tennis courts. The unveiling took place earlier this week. King is a former number one professional tennis player. She won 39 grand slam titles throughout her career.
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When were you first introduced to tennis?
I love sports. (My classmate) Susan Williams asked me if I wanted to play tennis and I said-- what's tennis? We were playing softball in a public park. The first time I went out, I knew what I was going to do with my life. We were in fifth grade. I was told you get to run, jump and hit the ball. Those are my three favorite things. I will try it, I thought. I benefitted from free public park instruction in Long Beach, Cal.
What were some of your interests as a child?
Freedom is a very important word to me. As a child I loved history. I loved biographies. And I kept dreaming about what I wanted and tried to do it. Tennis is an unbelievable platform.
What was it like being a young woman playing tennis in the 1960s?
I had trouble with the sport because I started thinking about it when I was 12. Everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes. Tennis had white balls in those days and everybody who played was white. And I said to myself-- where is everybody else? And then I decided I wanted to change things. And not just for my sport but for society. Basically, I've dedicated my life to equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, and men and women.
What pressures did you feel as a poster child as a female tennis player and how did you handle your friendships?
When I started we just had amateur tennis. We didn't have professional tennis yet. I wanted it to be pro tennis in the 1960s. My peers didn't understand why I didn't come to slumber parties. I told them-- No, you don't understand I want to be the number one tennis player in the world. And they said that's fun but we missed you, why do you go away every weekend. I was very focused and probably pretty boring for my friends because I'm driven.
Why are you passionate about public parks?
I love to create opportunities for kids like in Hunting Park. Because of those tennis courts they now created a team there because now they have courts to play on. That's what you want-- access, opportunities and safety. I'm a public park kid. I'm a product of what parks can do for a child. Look at my life and if I had not had that opportunity in public parks I would never be where I am today. I could not afford them (club dues). My family, my dad was a firefighter-- and we were not going to belong to a club, although I had rich friends.
Why is community service important to you and your organization?
The Philadelphia Freedoms are very committed to the community. You see equality in World Team Tennis. We have clinics for the kids. We have been really fortunate to be a part of the community and we want to be more and more a part of the community. We think it's really important that the tennis community work together and not be into politics. Our job is to take care of the kids, the people, the community and make it fun.
What's the most memorable match you played?
This year is the 40th anniversary when I played Bobby Riggs. It was huge. It was a turning point. It was a tennis match but it was about social change. Title IX had just passed the year before on June 23, 1972. When federal funding had to be equal for both genders for the first time. That changed everything for women because now we have more women at college and universities than men. If we didn't have Title IX, we wouldn't have all these women doctors and lawyers. ("The Battle of the Sexes," as the match was dubbed, was played in 1973 and was nationally televised. King beat Riggs, who was 26 years older.)
What was the most poignant impact of Title IX?
One of the additions to the 37 words of that piece of legislation are the words "education and activities" and that's where sports came in. After 1972, a woman could actually get an athletic scholarship for the first time. Boys had had scholarships forever. For instance when I went to college at Cal State LA, and worked two jobs, 30 miles away, Arthur Ashe had a full scholarship to UCLA. Stan Smith, who became number one as well, had a full scholarship at USC. When a guy doesn't get something they always scream.
What life lessons have you learned?
The most important thing is life lessons... Like being a champion in life. Sometimes you are going to be in a supportive role and sometimes you are going to be in a leadership role.
How has your life come full circle?
I played for Philadelphia Freedoms in 1974 and used to dream, dream about owning the team. Now, I do. The World Team Tennis season starts July 10.