DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. When my guest, tennis legend Billie Jean King, captured the Wimbledon women’s doubles title at the age of 17, she got a trophy and a chance to curtsy before the royal family, but no prize money. Today, that championship comes with hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings, and a good part of the reason is Billie Jean King herself.
When she was in her 20s, King organized other top women players in the game to take on the tennis establishment and win recognition and pay for their efforts, a high-risk undertaking that changed tennis forever. That’s among the events King recounts in a new memoir, along with some of her 39 Grand Slam championships, her activism for women and LGBTQ rights, and some joyous and painful chapters in her personal life, including a closeted lesbian relationship that burst into public view with a lawsuit. Billie Jean King also co-founded World Team Tennis, and in 2009, was the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her new book is “All In: An Autobiography.”
We’re going to listen to a new interview I’ve just recorded with Billie Jean King. But first, we’ll begin with the event she’s probably best known for – the so-called Battle of the Sexes match with self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in 1973. King described the experience in an interview in 2013. Riggs, a former tennis champion, had challenged King to an exhibition match after defeating another women’s tennis player, Margaret Court. King accepted, and the match was played in the Astrodome and seen by a TV audience estimated at 90 million people.
We’ll begin with an excerpt from an “American Masters” documentary about King. This deals with the hype leading up to the match. We’ll hear King and Bobby Riggs talking to reporters, and at the end, a bit of Bobby on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (ph).”
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “AMERICAN MASTERS”)
BILLIE JEAN KING: You know, I think that I can beat Bobby. I think I’m better.
BOBBY RIGGS: Well, what makes you think that I won’t be able to psych you out?
KING: I’m not Margaret Court. I love pressure. You can try and psych me all you want.
I think a lot is at stake for women’s lib. I like the idea that I’m playing for someone else besides myself.
RIGGS: I got 120,000 letters from Bobby’s Mob. This is the mob of guys all over the world who wrote and told me they were rooting for me. I wouldn’t let these guys down for the world.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: This is the atmosphere of a prizefight.
KING: It is. That’s exactly what it is.
RIGGS: Never bet against Bobby Riggs, especially when there’s big money involved.
KING: And he hustles off the court, and I hustle on the court. And that’s where it matters.
RIGGS: She’s carrying a banner for the women’s lib. I’m carrying, male is supreme. The male is king, no matter what the difference in age.
KING: It’s just a bunch of baloney. First of all, people are people, and some are more supreme than others in different things.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Bobby Riggs, ra, ra, ra.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON”)
JOHNNY CARSON: Do you like women?
RIGGS: I like them real good in the bedroom, the kitchen. And I really…
CARSON: You’re a male chauvinist pig.
DAVIES: And that is our guest…
DAVIES: …Billie Jean King, 40 years ago with Bobby Riggs, before the famed tennis Battle of the Sexes in 1973. You obviously had a lot of joint appearances together with Bobby Riggs, building up the attention before the match. Did you feel like you got to know him at all?
KING: Well, actually, Bobby was one of my heroes. I love history. I knew all the champions in our sport preceding me. And I appreciated him. He won the Triple Crown at Wimbledon. I knew that the Second World War and actually hurt his career, which I felt bad for him because it didn’t allow him to get the recognition he deserved. He was finally at least getting recognition. I don’t know (laughter) everybody – I don’t think most people realize what a great champion he had been. Even though I would tell them, I don’t think they were really tuned into that at the time because…
DAVIES: Well, yeah, he was 55 when he was doing this thing.
KING: He was 55. He was as old as my father. And I told him – I mean, for me to beat him meant absolutely nothing athletically, OK? Nothing. But it’s what it represented. And when Margaret lost, you know, I didn’t know if I was going to beat him. I thought she would kill him. And…
KING: …As far as winning. And she didn’t. So I’m like, oh, boy. And I – you never underestimate your opponent anyway. I mean, my parents – my dad – oh, God. That was, like – he had two words. Always respect your opponent. Always, always, always respect them, no matter what. And secondly, never, ever underestimate them, ever. So these things were just printed in my DNA almost. So here’s a hero of mine. He’s going on and on about women in the bedroom and keep them pregnant and barefooted and all these things. And I’m like, oh, my God. He was funny. But you know, I like showtime. I love entertainment. And I think, being a tennis player, you’re a performer.
KING: So I got that part. And I thought, you know what, Bobby? Just go for it. But I’m going to tell you, I’m not letting you get under my skin because I didn’t want him to think he could, like he did Margaret. Because from whatever – I didn’t get to see the match against Margaret. I must tell you. Through this American Masters series, I got to see it once. And I didn’t realize how badly Margaret played.
And I felt so sorry for her because we’ve all been there. Every human being’s been in these situations where you’re not happy and you don’t do well and you choke. I mean, athletes – we choke. I mean, champions just choke less. She had a horrible day at the office. So I felt so bad. But so it did tee us up, though. I must say, it teed us up – the women’s movement, Title IX the year before, all the things that I’d been fighting for forever, equal opportunities for boys and girls.
You know, it’s funny because everybody talks about how this divided us. Actually, it brought everybody together. It did exactly what I wanted. It had all these parties, all these bets from people. Everybody was crazy at this time about this match.
DAVIES: Well, what I wanted to ask you was, do you think Bobby Riggs really held these strong beliefs about the role of women? Or was this just basically shtick that he developed to get attention and money?
KING: No, I think he was chauvinistic. I think he probably went over the top for the match. But he was a very kind person. But I think he’s very chauvinistic. I think he was chauvinistic.
DAVIES: All right.
KING: But a great – but a really nice chauvinist. And he and I remained friends up until the day he died from prostate cancer.
DAVIES: So the day of the match arrives, and Riggs enters accompanied by a bunch of young women.
KING: (Laughter) The rickshaw.
DAVIES: You enter like Cleopatra, carried on a train of muscular guys.
KING: (Laughter) Loved it.
DAVIES: This was obviously part of the show. Yeah. You felt OK about that?
KING: Oh, yeah, I felt great. Because it’s showtime. And Jerry Perenchio was quite sweet behind – you know, before I came out, he said, I have this Egyptian litter. Would – do you think you’d get in it? I know you’re a feminist. You probably won’t. I said, are you kidding? It’s showtime. This is perfect. Absolutely, I’ll get up here. Let’s have some fun. You know, the crowd deserves a good show. Obviously, I was about ready to die because I’ve got to win this match – I mean, the – you know, the reality of it. But I also – you know, your fans always come first. So I said, no, I’ll get on there. And he about fainted. He said, you will? I said, yes, of course I will. It’s showtime.
DAVIES: Let’s hear a little bit of showtime here. I want to listen to a little bit of Howard Cosell…
KING: Oh, that’s pathetic.
DAVIES: …Describing your entrance. Let’s listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOWARD COSELL: It’s like Monday Night Football. It’s not the usual tennis atmosphere. It’s a happening. And here comes Billie Jean King, a very attractive young lady. If she’d ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders, took her glasses off, she would have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test. There she is.
DAVIES: And that’s Howard Cosell, reminding us it was 1973 when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. This whole thing – if you took your glasses off – you know, it’s sort of remarkable to hear that 40 years later.
KING: It still prevails.
DAVIES: Still out there, huh?
KING: Not to the extent, but it does.
DAVIES: Were you nervous when it was time to start?
KING: Actually, what happens to me is I get really nervous the farther out I am. I’m really nervous. And then I start getting into this place in my head, which – I do not know how I get there. You know, people say, well, how do you get there? I start just trying to feel and visualize the moment, how it’s going to go and how am I going to respond? But you don’t really know how it’s going to be, especially this one-shot deal.
The one thing I did do to prepare is I went to the Astrodome. And I looked at the top of the building. It’s huge. I mean, I don’t know how many hundreds of feet up it is. I also wanted to make sure I knew the lay of the land, understand how to get around the arena because nothing’s worse than going to a new place and not finding your way. And you have to keep trying to talk to the guards. I met all the guards. I knew where all the elevators were. I knew where my locker room was. I knew where the car would come and let us off or where it’d pick us up at the end.
I mean, I’d go through all these logistics because they’re just as important if you’re not used to an arena, so you don’t get lost or get out of sorts. You don’t want to get out of sorts for those kinds of reasons. That’s the last thing you want on your head. So I did spend a lot of time at the Astrodome the day before, though, just to feel it.
DAVIES: Right. You took care of him in straight sets. Does it bother you that, 40 years later, when people hear Billie Jean King’s name, they may not remember that you won 20 Wimbledon titles, but they remember the Bobby Riggs match?
KING: I knew that was going to happen actually at the time because you could tell that was going to get the most exposure I was ever going to get in my life. Every day I leave the apartment in New York City where I live, I know someone’s probably going to bring up that match. And every day, if I’m out in public since that match in 1973, I at least get one or more people coming up to me talking to me about it. Most people, if they’re old enough to have seen it, remember exactly where they were that day.
DAVIES: Billie Jean King recorded in 2013. When we return, we’ll hear our interview about her new memoir called “All In.” This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Next, we’re going to listen to the interview I recorded last week with tennis legend Billie Jean King. She has a new memoir called “All In.”
Well, Billie Jean King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It’s good to have you.
KING: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: You didn’t grow up in a country club. Your dad was a career firefighter. How did you pick up tennis and get good at it?
KING: (Laughter) Well, it was happened in fifth grade. First of all, I did play all team sports as a child – baseball, football. Basketball was our first love. And I have a younger brother, Randy Moffitt, who played 12 years of professional baseball. So he and I played sports together all the time. I’m five years older. So we’re totally into everything. I’m in fifth grade. I also remember at 9 years old, I realized as a girl I couldn’t play baseball as we were watching a Pacific Coast League in California when I was 9. And I realized that was my – I was really upset that day. I’ll never forget realizing that because of my gender, I’m a girl, I’ll never be able to play professional baseball.
So anyway, in fifth grade, Susan Williams is sitting next to me. She looked at me and says, do you want to play tennis? And I go, tennis? What’s tennis? I said, well, what do you do? And she says, you get to run, jump and hit a ball. I said, oh, wow, I’m there. I’ll try it. So we went to her country club. I loved it. And I thought, well, this is nice, but my dad’s a firefighter. I’m never going to be able to play all the time because we don’t belong to a country club, that’s for sure.
Then Susan and I are also on a softball team in Houghton Park. And she says to the coach, oh, I took Billie out to play tennis. And the coach, Val Halerin (ph), says, oh, they give free instruction here every Tuesday at Houghton Park. And then I was excited. I might have a chance to really play. So my dad made me my first racquet. I go out to the park, and I met Clyde Walker, my first coach. And I knew I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world that day, the second time I picked up a racket.
DAVIES: So when you started playing and you started playing competitively, and when you really got good and were kind of becoming known in junior tennis, I remember you describing when you first started going to to events at country clubs, you would notice that the boys in a lot of cases were having their meals comped, right? And that wasn’t coming your way.
KING: Yes. At the Los Angeles Tennis Club, I used to sit back and watch what was going on. And the top male juniors could sign off on, you know, for sandwiches, Cokes or – I was just talking to a friend the other day. She had the same situation. And we used to take our brown bag lunches to the courts. And my mom and I would sit in the back and watch tennis and eat. But I always thought – in the back of my mind I thought, you know, it’s really not right. Every – should be by individual, not by whether you’re a girl or boy. So I was irritated.
But when I was 12 was when I had my epiphany that really changed my life and set me on course. That was also at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. And I was sitting there daydreaming about my sport that I’d gotten into. And everybody wore white shoes and white socks and white clothes, played with white balls. Everybody who played was white. And I asked myself at 12 years old, when I was daydreaming, where is everybody else? Where is everybody else? So I promised myself that day – if I could become No. 1, that I would fight for equality the rest of my life.
DAVIES: So let’s talk about how you changed the game or helped to change the game as a young woman. You know, you were an amateur back then, as most of the top tennis players were. And you would get some payments in the form of expenses, right? You called it shamateurism (ph). Why was it a sham?
KING: Because it’s just dishonest. Sometimes, you know, you get money – the very officials that ran the game had tournaments and give whatever they decided to players. And they used to give more money to the foreign players. So that was another irritating factor. So we just knew the game had to change. We were just – it was a mess. It was a mess. It wasn’t honest. I like integrity, really. Everything should start with integrity. And I felt like I’m in a sport that could do a lot better with that.
DAVIES: Even when you did get expenses, it wasn’t a lot of money, right?
KING: We got $14 a day when we stayed in housing.
DAVIES: Wow. So you began speaking out. You would talk to newspaper reporters. And this was after you’d established a name for yourself. You had defeated Margaret Smith at Wimbledon, I believe. And you know, you were a known, well-known player. And you started giving these candid comments to reporters calling, this whole system shamateurism. And there’s a moment you describe where Robert Kelleher, who I guess was the president of the Tennis Association – right? – tells you, Billie Jean, if you don’t stop giving all these interviews, you’re going to get suspended. You just say, go ahead. You’re like all of – what? – 24 years old at the time. I mean, you were kind of fearless about this, weren’t you? I mean, where did that come from?
KING: Well, it came from that epiphany when I was 12. But it also came from, I think, watching TV in the ’50s and just seeing how you have to fight for change. Like, for instance, when kids of color, Black kids, could not go to school with white kids, I did not understand that. I used to – I asked my dad and my mom why – I don’t understand that. And they said, oh, because they’re Negroes. And I said, well, what does that got to do with it? They said, because of their color. And I said, I don’t get this. This isn’t right.
And so I think a lot of that – just knowing – and also, Althea Gibson, who was the first Black player ever to win a major, she was allowed to finally play in our tournaments in 1950. Of course, Jackie Robinson had joined the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But finally, we had our champion and our Jackie Robinson of tennis. And that was Althea Gibson. She was, if not my first, she – well, she probably was my first. And Darlene Hard was another one who was local and hit with me and also a great player. In fact, Darlene lost to Althea in the finals of Wimbledon, I think, in ’57. So I don’t know. I just wanted things to be right. And also, I want people to change.
DAVIES: As I read about you taking on, you know, the tennis establishment in these days, I mean, it was fascinating to read how you could at times really be kind of a hothead. I mean, like one example that you cite is one time you go to a match – I think this was at Forest Hills. And in the umpire’s chair is a guy named Al Bumen (ph) who years before had lobbied to undermine your ranking. And you saw him. And you remembered this. And rather than kind of just get quietly annoyed, you challenged him, right? You asked him to be removed right there on the court?
KING: Yeah, I did. I asked the official to come out. That was the tournament director. And I said, I just think he shouldn’t be in the chair, knowing his political belief with this player. And yeah, I just didn’t think it was right. I just – I thought it was wrong. I don’t think he should have been in the chair. I think they should have – could have thought about that.
DAVIES: What was your case, I mean, that he had undermined you years before? Yeah.
KING: Right. Yes. I had been ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time. And then they go – they have a meeting three months later just to kind of pass it. And because I didn’t play in Stan Moles’s (ph) tournament and then the Midwest association area and Milwaukee area, he said, no, I don’t think she should be No. 1. Let’s co-rank her with Nancy because Nancy played his tournament and I didn’t. I was very irritated because I definitely was No 1 that year.
And Al Bumen – (unintelligible) – it’s just all the political things behind the scenes that happened that I wanted to get rid of. I just think there’s no integrity in our sport. It was just all political. And who could write the nicest thank you note? Who could write the nicest note to say, could I get in your tournament? You know, it’s just – they showed favors.
DAVIES: Well, I guess what’s interesting to me about this is that sort of it’s almost like you have the temperament more for ice hockey, where you’ll drop the gloves and say, let’s just duke it out here.
KING: Oh, no, actually, I’m not. I’m more of a uniter. I’m really actually very much a uniter first.
DAVIES: Well, this is what I was going to say, was that there are all these times where you stand up and are very tough – and in this case, kind of, you know, threw a tantrum and left. But again and again you see that you have this understanding of the need to get something done. And if that means compromise, if it means building relationships, allies, not enemies, that’s what you do. I mean, you end up working with people who you’ve had fights with again and again. It’s really kind of a remarkable combination of qualities. You fight, but, you know, not blindly.
KING: I don’t take things personally, which I think is really important if you’re going to make it in life, because it’s really about the person speaking. It is not about you, what they say about you, it’s really about the person. So I think just like forgiveness is so important, forgiveness is absolutely – should be near the top, if not the top sometimes. And that allows you to move on too because otherwise people just harp on things that you can’t change things because of it. So why are you wasting your time and effort on that? You really want – I always try to think, how can I bring people together?
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Billie Jean King. Her new book is “All In: An Autobiography.” She’ll be back to talk more after this short break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. We’re speaking with tennis great Billie Jean King, who’s known for her 39 Grand Slam titles and beating Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. In a new memoir, she describes her intense battles for pay equity for women in professional tennis and reflects on her complicated personal life, which at times burst into public view. Her book is called “All In: An Autobiography.”
So back in the late ’60s, when you were trying to change the game, when, you know, great players like you were considered amateurs and getting nothing more than meager expenses, you decided for a period to go ahead and give up your amateur status and join one of these professional groups. A guy named George McCall had recruited some women players into – I guess you call it a barnstorming effort, where you would go around and play. And they would assemble audiences. And you’d get paid real money. Just tell me a little bit about what that life was like? I mean, flying – and you would play on, like, airport tarmacs and gyms and – (laughter).
KING: We go to southern France. And my first pro match was against Frankie Durr in a gym. It’s hilarious. I’ll never forget it. You couldn’t hear – it was raining so hard, we couldn’t hear each other. And I thought, this is my first pro match? I think there might have been – this is a stretch, probably – 200 people. And I said, is this what it means to be a pro (laughter)? We were laughing so hard. I said, well, it’s worth it if things change. So we would play every single night. Sometimes – we always had to go through Toulouse. We get on a plane. And then we’d get in a van, maybe travel winding roads for six hours, get out, run, get dressed, play. And you should’ve seen the courts. I mean, one – I swear, one place we played had light bulbs, literally light bulbs. I think it was about 15 feet high or something. You can’t – that’s not a – you know, you just play. You just – you do the best you can. And we all were really dear friends. And we got along really well, so thank goodness. Relationships are everything. There is no question. And these guys are friends even now, the ones that are still alive.
DAVIES: Yeah. I can’t imagine the wear and tear on your body, the loss of sleep. Wow.
KING: You learned how to sleep anyplace. Pancho Gonzales could sleep anyplace. And he said, Billie, it’s what you have to do if you’re going to be a contract pro. Every time you get a chance, 10-minute nap here. If you’re on a plane, make sure you sleep. Yeah. They gave us a lot of good suggestions.
DAVIES: So there came a point at which tournaments were offering prize money, finally. They didn’t restrict these big tournaments to amateurs. Men were making much more than women. And you needed a way to assert your interests in real recognition and real pay. And somehow, this idea came up of a tour, of you forming a women’s tour. Explain what happened here.
KING: It was a build-up for three years because in ’68, when I went open, it was crazy. They started having less opportunities for us, like you said, dropping tournaments, giving us less. So Rosie Casals and I talked to Gladys Heldman. Gladys Heldman was the publisher of World Tennis magazine. So Gladys said she’d run a tournament because she was trying to work with Jack Kramer, the Pacific Southwest, and it just gotten impossible. So she said, to hell with it, I’m going to do a tournament, which was great. So we had this tournament. But during the tournament, we would get together and have meetings, the nine of us. The three things that we talked about – there were three things – that any girl born in this world, if she were good enough, would have a place to compete. No. 2, she’d be appreciated for her accomplishments, not only her looks – and No. 3, to be able to make a living playing tennis, which is the most important thing because most of us had, obviously, experienced our $14-a-day experience. And we never wanted that for any girl growing up after us.
So we ended up signing a $1 contract with Gladys. And that was the birth of women’s professional tennis the way you know it today. We didn’t care if we were suspended, which we were. We were suspended, then we were taken back, suspended, taken back. It was very tumultuous at the time. It was very scary. We didn’t know what was going to happen. But of course, now you see the WTA tour with millions and millions of dollars. You see the winners of the majors making, you know, $3 million. You can go right back to that day when we signed that $1 contract. That is the essence of why they are getting this money today.
DAVIES: Well, you know, while this is – all this is happening in the early ’70s and you’re up to your ears in playing and managing this new venture, along comes this challenge from Bobby Riggs, this former great men’s tennis player who wants to demonstrate men’s superiority by beating the best women players of the day. And this leads to the battle of the sexes. I guess you probably get asked about this more than anything else. But after the Bobby Riggs match, which you expected to win and did win, and given that you thought this…
KING: Actually, I wasn’t expected to win.
DAVIES: No, no. I’m saying you expected to win.
KING: Oh, I did. Yeah. Oh, I’m sorry (laughter). No, but I know the odds were against me.
DAVIES: Right. A lot of people were betting against you because he had defeated Margaret Court. But when you won, as you thought you would, you must have thought about, well, how do I maximize the impact of this by carrying just the right message from when you leap over, you know, the net and congratulate each other? I guess you thought about how you wanted to kind of shape the message here, didn’t you?
KING: Yeah. Well, it goes back to my epiphany at 12. It’s all about each person, you know, and having equity, equality, you know? Always start with total respect with each person. I don’t ever try to assume anything when I meet a person for the first time. Also, I’m very curious. I like to ask questions. I like to ask about them. And, like, I would love to actually interview you, probably…
KING: …A lot more than being interviewed, you know? Isn’t Davies, like, a Welsh name? I think it’s Welsh. I think it is.
DAVIES: It is a Welsh name. It’s very common in Wales. And I think it’s pronounced Davis there. Yep. Yep. Yeah. But unfortunately, my Welsh roots are lost to time. And my identity is much more Texan, which is where I grew up.
KING: Yeah, that’s right. You went to the University of Texas. But I played in Wales, so I always think about it. I always had a great time there in Cardiff.
DAVIES: All right. Let me reintroduce you. We need to take another break here. We’re speaking with Billie Jean King. Her new book is “All In: An Autobiography.” We’ll continue our conversation right after this. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA’S “GRAZING IN THE GRASS”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with tennis legend Billie Jean King. She has a new book called “All In: An Autobiography.”
You are so candid and outspoken in so much of your life as an athlete. And you tell some stories about your personal life in the book, where you carried a lot of secrets for understandable reasons. I mean, you were married to Larry King – not the broadcaster Larry King – but sounds like he was a really supportive partner of yours for a long, long time. And – but you developed a relationship with a woman, Marilyn Barnett, which you felt you had to keep this a secret. And I think given the day and given the stakes that – the way attitudes were at the time, it’s not surprising, given everything that you were doing, that you did keep it a secret. But the relationship eventually soured. She occupied a house. She didn’t want to move out of it. She was talking about selling letters you had written to her, demanding money. And in the end, you tried to negotiate it quietly, but one day, she without warning files a lawsuit outing your relationship. That certainly had to be one of the toughest days of your life. And you had to decide what to do, and lawyers and press folks would advise you, eh, say as little as you can; don’t try the case in public. You chose a different course. You want to tell us what you did?
KING: They wanted to kind of deny it, and I said, well, I can’t deny it. I mean, it’s a fact. I’ve had this affair with Marilyn. It’d been over quite a while when she finally sued me. And I don’t know that – in those days, the publicist would just say, it’s private, it’s not of your business, and it’s not true. And I’m like, you guys, I can’t do that. And I said, I want a press conference. And they said, no, no, no. So I fought with them for, like, 48 hours, and I said, I’m going to do it. And the place was packed, as I thought it would be, and I told them the truth. You know, I said I had an affair with Marilyn Barnett. You could hear a pin drop. And that was it. But it was a terrible time.
And also, being gay or bisexual or whatever I thought I was at the time, I don’t – trying to remember back what I was feeling in those days – that we still weren’t accepted. We were still considered deviant until 19- I think, ’75 five or something? Psychiatry was saying we weren’t healthy and well. And it took a long, long time for people. But also, people on the tour who ran the tour told me if I said anything, we wouldn’t have a tour. That made it real simple. I’m not going to go saying it if I think I’m going to ruin the tour, not after all we’d been through and everybody else had been through. So that kind of put me deeper into the closet, for sure. And then not being happy with myself, being shame-based, my parents being homophobic – all these things were just swirling around. I’m still trying to play tennis. Oh, it was a mess. I was a mess. This was my toughest time, I think, in my life.
DAVIES: Right. And your parents did show up.
KING: Oh, my parents were great. I knew they would show up. But for them to accept it, that took a long, long time. That took until the ’90s. I got psychotherapy. I went to an eating disorder place. And so I think everyone has these moments in their lives that they know that it hasn’t been just an easy road. That’s for sure.
DAVIES: Well, you know, I had been aware of this event, but what I learned in the book was that, in fact, you know, while in a way you told the truth that – in that you had had this affair, there was a lot that you were still not disclosing, right? I mean, you actually then had another relationship with Ilana Kloss, who you’ve remained with for all of these decades. But you kind of said, this was a – it was a mistake; I was unfaithful to my marriage. And you said you were still committed to the marriage. And so, in fact, what you actually say in the book is that, in this case, you turned being outed into a way to burrow deeper into the closet. I mean, you had to hide even more. That had to be really hard. Gosh.
KING: Well, Larry and I did – we did…
DAVIES: Larry, your husband at the time, yeah.
KING: Yeah, Larry was my husband at the time. But I – and we did try again. But I was always with Ilana. And I’d asked Larry for a divorce in 1969, and he said no. And he still didn’t want to get divorced. He never did, actually. We finally got divorced in ’87, I think, and he still didn’t want to get divorced. It was one of the most painful moments in separation ’cause we love each other. And so – but I was with Ilana by now when this lawsuit happened. And no, we’ve been together for 42 years, and it’s worked out unbelievable.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Billie Jean King. Her new memoir is called “All In.”
I want to talk just a bit about tennis. You know, you write about being good when you were young. You were really good on grass courts. Were there some that you just didn’t like playing on? I mean, clay wasn’t exactly your specialty, right?
KING: Well, we weren’t allowed – I wasn’t – (laughter) that’s another thing. The USTA used to control our lives. And I wanted to be in Europe, like, after Wimbledon and stay on the red clay ’cause I actually ended up loving red clay in the end because I finally got to play on it enough. But growing up on hard courts, all the tournaments – 75% of tournaments were played on grass when we were playing, my generation. So of course, grass was – you had to adapt to grass. And the grass had horrible bounces ’cause everyone always says, why did you serve volley so much? Are you kidding? We didn’t want the ball to bounce. We never knew what kind of bounce we were going to get. At least if the ball’s in the air when you hit it, you had a better chance to control the ball. So that’s why we served volley so much on grass.
And the rackets were so heavy and cumbersome compared to today’s racquets. Oh, my gosh. Today’s rackets are just so much fun. I always think, God, if I could have had this racket when I was playing, it would have been so different and so much more fun. But, you know, we did the best we could. I mean, my racket was 13 3/4 ounces, which I’d never play with now. It’d be much lighter. And the aerodynamics with these new rackets and the strings – oh, my goodness, the strings. That’s all the players talk about now are the strings. So getting the strings – oh, the cross is this way, the length that – whatever.
KING: It’s just different. It’s not even the same. It’s not – it’s apples and oranges.
DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things I find about talking to elite athletes in a sport that I’ve played a little bit – and I think this is true for a lot of people – it’s fun to watch people who do something at a very high level that most of us have done at a pathetically low level. But I’m interested in what it felt like when you first said, wow, this is what I want to do. Was it hard forehand?
DAVIES: What was the feel that just said, oh, my heavens, this is transcendent?
KING: You mean the first day I was with Clyde, you mean?
DAVIES: Whenever it felt – whenever you fell in love with it, yeah.
KING: Well, that was the moment. Are you kidding? I liked it with Susan Williams when we went out to hit. I liked it. But after having my first – my second time I picked up a racket was when I went out to see Clyde at Houghton Park. That was the moment of truth for me. I just loved hitting the ball. You have to remember; I played shortstop in softball, and I started thinking about how many times do I think I touched the ball as a shortstop in baseball or softball. And I’m going – what? – six, seven times a game maybe. And I’m like, do you realize I can hit a hundred tennis balls – I can touch the ball with the strings 100 times in a few minutes. This is amazing. But the moment of truth was that day in Long Beach, Calif., in Houghton Park with Clyde Walker.
DAVIES: Clyde Walker, your early instructor when you were a kid. Yeah. Yeah.
KING: Right. He was my first coach ever, my rec coach. He couldn’t go to matches with me because he had to do his job at the rec park. But because Long Beach had free access to tennis courts, I had free access to coaching – the same for my younger brother, Randy Moffitt, who played baseball. If we didn’t have the parks in Long Beach and have them free, not pay to play, that’s why we’re able to have been professional athletes and been the best that we could be in our individual sports, you know, him being baseball and me being tennis.
And so I just cannot stress enough how important it is to have free access to parks. But also, you have to have free coaching organization because you can go to a court, but someone has to get you organized or teach you how to do it. So I can’t stress this enough to put resources behind that in your communities.
DAVIES: One more thing. You know, when Naomi Osaka chose not to talk to the media, I mean, you expressed an opinion about that. We also saw Simone Biles taking, you know, a mental health break during the Olympics. What’s your take on cases like that where people think they need to step back from the spotlight for a time?
KING: I think it’s great they’re being honest and telling the world. And, of course, with social media, it’s a lot easier to share your thoughts quickly. You can mobilize quickly, communicate quickly. No, I think we’ve always had these issues. I don’t think people realize, like, the WTA, the Women’s Tennis Association, has services for this. But it’s confidential, so that’s why no one’s ever heard about it. Naomi can go and get help, get psychologists. We can get whatever for them. So – and I think it’s good Simone spoke up. I think she was smart to do that so the team could win a medal. I think that’s the right thing to do.
DAVIES: Well, Billie Jean King, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
KING: Thanks, Dave. It was good talking to you.
DAVIES: Billie Jean King’s new book is “All In: An Autobiography.” Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews a new film about Broadway from 1959 through the ’80s. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT’S “CONCEPTION”)
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