LZ Sunday Paper Newsletter: The "So Good OG Billie" Edition

Dateline: 9/12/21

Dear Subscribers,

I had the incredible opportunity this week to attend both Women's Semi-final matches and then the Women's Final matches at U.S. Open Tennis. I also saw incredible Junior Girl's Doubles and what I would characterize as the most impressive of all, the Women's Double's Wheelchair Finals

But during this week of thought, reflection, and pensiveness between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with special focus on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the ways in which the world has changed, I had another even more incredible opportunity. I sat down to chat with Billie Jean King. Yes, that BJK. Yes, The one who earned 39 Grand Slam Titles. Yes, the one the U.S. Open Tennis Center is named for. Yes, The one who changed history with the other phenomenal women in The Original 9. Yes, the one loomed so large in my house, a hero who my father talked about incessantly hoping she would battle off the 'male chauvinist pig' Bobby Riggs, who he viewed as a bully and a sore loser. Yes, the one who keeps fighting for what's right with stories of grit and heart. Her latest book captures so much of what she has done and will do.

I'm no Terry Gross, but we did have a really great conversation. It is edited for length and clarity. Also some names and dates might not be right. Blame the drool coming out of my mouth in awe which might have smudged the ink as I was madly scribbling notes: 

LZ: What did you think about the two teen phenom competitors in the U.S. Open Final [last night]?
BJK:  I thought about my match against Chrissie Evert in 1971 – 50 years ago! – in the U.S. Open Semi-Final. People were coming up to me saying that if I lose to her everyone will say there’s no reason to have professionals in the Open. [ed. note Chris Evert was 16, still an unranked amateur; BJK was 27, ranked #3 in the world] I had fought so hard to professionalize women's tennis.

LZ: You are known for the phrase, “Pressure is a privilege.” When did you first come up with it? Do you remember the first time you said it?
BJK: I was the Captain of the US Fed Cup team, which is the World Cup of women’s tennis. Every country plays, maybe 200 or so? Lindsay [Davenport] was on the team, she had to play Arancha Sanchez Vicario in the final. We were in Vegas. Lindsay was getting non-centered, not focused, and she looked at me and said, “What should I do?” I said “Champions adjust, and pressure is a privilege.” [ed: Davenport won 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 to give the US a 2-0 lead in the series. Led by Davenport and Monica Seles, the U.S. swept Spain 5-0, with Davenport meeting Sanches Vicario again in the 5th and final match, winning 6-1, 6-2]    

LZ: Pressure, how do deal with it, its impact on mental health, is top of mind in women’s tennis right now. How do you think you would do today under the glare of social media, rough press questions, fickle fans?

BJK: Today would be easy.  If I wanted to come out and work through things, I would be celebrated.  We all went through this stuff. But we still need a better system.

What I want to do to help players today is a really proper rookie school, talking about mental health.  It would be a real school, training. One of the things we’d cover is speaking to the media on a daily basis.  Earning money. What people want from you. You’d get training. And then, if you can't handle that and you don't want to do it, sure, that’s fine, but let's think about it. If that’s part of the job, do you want the job? Get the training.

LZ: What was the hardest thing about it, then?

BJK: I can’t tell you how many roadblocks, how awful people were every step of the way. It was so shame based. I was told by the highest levels of the tennis organization that we wouldn’t have a women’s tour if I said anything, tried to get paid. I wanted the men and the women to be together, to play together [on the same tour]—the men rejected us in every way, every day.

Coming out? Even Larry [Larry William King]. He wouldn't divorce me.  In 1969 I wanted a divorce.  [ed: they were married in 1965; they divorced in 1987]. Now you say something about mental health and we are celebrated.

When I started the WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] in 1973, we started to talk about this ad nauseum-- the mental side.  This was 1973! We said, “What are we gonna do about it?”  What if I'm a player and my parent is abusing me—or my coach--the WTA can help me with a therapist, a lawyer, the USTA can help.  We used to talk about these things.  
LZ: Did you ever get a piece of advice, from a coach, a friend, a peer, that you thought was total crap at the time but you have come back to and now think is right?
BJK: Wow, that’s interesting. I really have to think about that.
LZ: Why aren’t more women coaching – even all the top women who espouse feminism and equality have an all male team, especially the coaches…
BJK: Most athletes never want change.  They're so into ‘the culture.’ When I was first coaching Fed Cup the President of the Davis Cup (was it Les Snyder?) said “we want to put you on the list for Davis Cup -- and then the old boy network comes in. Never got a call. More women should try to support women, and they don't.  The culture. [But some people] want change. Djokovic wants change. And Andy Murray has hired women-- he hired [Amelie] Mauresmo & Conchita Martinez to coach Davis Cup.
LZ: There was a very moving tribute to the "Original 9” during the Semi-Final match changeover on Thursday. It was really powerful to see six of you together. Valerie Ziegenfuss said that you gave up a lot, risked a lot, to pay it forward, to give a future to the next generations of women players. Did you know how hard it would be at the time?

BJK:  YES! Some things are obvious, even if they're hard.  We had to do it. We were scared, but we went for it.  Maybe we would get suspended, not be allowed to play, the tour would ban us. But we had to do it, we had to turn pro. Being pro means we're good, amateur means it's a hobby.  It was our dream.-- we talked about all of it. Signing the 1 dollar bill contract with Gladys [Heldman], it was going against the USTA and the ITF the governing bodies of tennis because you were turning pro. We had to do it. We got a check for the first time 1968. Then for years we were getting less money, 8:1 prize money on the tour, 12:1 in the Slams. $750 for the women’s winner, 3 grand, maybe 10 grand for the guy.  We all had a great sense of humor, that helped. We could leave it all on the court.  

LZ: You say that you wanted to give the future generations three things: a place to compete; the right to be appreciated for skills and accomplishments, not only for looks; and to be able to make a living. Do you think you’ve accomplished that?

BJK: I hope so. We’re making progress.
LZ: Is it true that Elton John wrote 'Philadelphia Freedom" for you when you were the Coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms team in 1974?
BJK: Yes! I remember he brought me to Denver to hear the rough cut. He was so nervous I wasn't gonna love it. I would have loved anything he did but when I heard those first notes, I knew. It was a great gift to the people of Philadelphia. It went to #1 and then crossed over to the R&B chart. Elton was so proud and excited. 

LZ: What part of the game did you love most?

BJK: I like mixed then [women’s] doubles then singles third. 
LZ: Really?! Who was your mixed partner?
BJK:  Owen Davidson, a lefty from Australia -- he and i won a lot. What’s funny is we didn’t get to play together that much -- he had to work for a living at Wimbledon [and as manager of British Competitive Tennis]. I guess I really played very well with lefties—Martina, Ilana [Kloss]. 
LZ: Why do you love doubles?

BJK: I just love getting along.  Some players don't get along and they win a lot together. I can't do that.  I want to have the process be that i feel connected, someone I trust and have fun with. If you notice players touch today between every point. It's a plus.  It's a connection, it's starting over, every point from a positive place.  Studies show – those teams do better.
LZ: You end many of your speeches and interviews with the phrase “Show up. Stand up. Speak up.” Rosie Casals paid tribute to you the other night when she ended her part of the Original 9 tribute with it. What should we take away from that?
BJK: I still constantly think “How can I affect my sport? How can we get the kids to understand history but more importantly shape the future?” When my mom was 80, she said, “At 7 years old, you told me when you were drying the dishes you would do something great with your life. At 12, you came back and told me you knew exactly what it was going to be. Tennis. You were so definitive, you knew what you wanted. Billie, are you happy?” And I said, “Mommy, I just loved it.” 

I love talking to incredible women. I hope you, too, like my interviews. But if you like to read things by other people, below are the important articles and pieces you still need to read to keep up with the week's news by and about women.  Hand picked, by me, for you. Click here  to subscribe, if you don't already. Get the best of the best, from politics to tech, business to the arts, health to pop culture, every week in your inbox.

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On the off-chance you aren't going to be inducted into the Tennis Hall Of Fame, may you still be inscribed in the Book Of Life.

Shalom, Shalom


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