An interview with Billie Jean King

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The BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup (March 2, 7:30 p.m. ET, HBO) at Madison Square Garden will feature some of women's tennis' biggest names. Four of the world's top eight players — No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, No. 6 Venus Williams, and No. 8 Ana Ivanovic — will compete in a one-night, single-elimination tournament.


What: BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup
When: March 2, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden
Description: A one-night tournament featuring Serena and Venus Williams, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.
For more details, click here.
The tourney will conclude "Tennis Night in America," an effort to grow youth participation in the sport of tennis. The USTA will also kick off its search for "America's Best Tennis Town" in conjunction with the MSG event, a nationwide search for the most passionate tennis town in America that will culminate with the announcement of the winner at the 2009 U.S. Open in August. Billie Jean King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 women's doubles Slam titles, and 11 more in mixed doubles. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York — site of the U.S. Open — is named in her honor. She's also famous for beating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973. The tennis legend joined for an interview ahead of the event. It sounds like a great crop of players at this event. Billie Jean King: ... There's going to be a whole celebration around women's sports. So it's going to be a really great night of celebration and tennis. It's going to be televised by HBO ... (John) McEnroe, (Mary) Carillo and I will be up in the booth. There's a lot of parity right now in women's tennis. Who do you think will be standing out this season and the next couple years? King: I think you're going to see them at the Showdown. I think Jankovic and Ivanovic are very young. To be No. 1, you have to pay your dues and then you're there and you sustain it. Jankovic needs a weapon. She knows it. She's in much better shape. She had Pat Etcheberry helping her (recently). Ivanovic has to get more comfortable. She isn't comfortable yet ... But Jankovic needs a weapon, and to be No. 1 you have to have something that stands out. So she needs to work on that, I think. If I were trying to help her, I'd ask her, 'What do you think should be your weapon? You know ... if you had one.' And I think that's what's missing right now. Serena to me is the one to beat. When Serena is firing on all cylinders, she's the one to beat. I think she's been focused with what God gave her and also what Venus has. I think Venus needs to continue to go to net more because of her wingspan. I can't think of four any more entertaining players. I think it's a great night. We want to keep tennis in the Garden (after the Pete Sampras-Roger Federer match last year). All the tennis people said, we have to keep tennis in the Garden. (StarGames President Jerry Solomon) came up with this idea and he came to me and said can we call it your Cup and I'm so embarrassed. ... So we talked, and I said OK, go for it. I won't turn too many shades of red, I hope. Yeah, if they keep putting your name on tennis things in New York, you can get used to it, right? King: No, I never get used to it. I actually don't. If I walk into the tennis center out in New York, I'm just like, "This is a dream." It's not real. What was that day like for you? King: (pauses) It was unbelievable. It was great because John (McEnroe) and Jimmy (Connors) and Venus and Chris (Evert) all spoke. You've got Diana Ross — a legend — singing. You've got 23,000 people packed into the stadium. You've got millions watching throughout the world. I think, being a woman, I was in total shock because that's not usually what happens to us. Did you see it as a culmination of all the work you've done for equality in the sport? King: No, because I'm not finished. Actually, I've got an added-on, I-gotta-keep-going, responsibility feeling. This is just the beginning. That's kind of the way I've been brought up, though. My dad didn't let me read my press clippings since I was 15. They kept us very grounded. They had great values. I have a book out, Pressure is a Privilege, that talks about them. ... On the "Battle of the Sexes": If I'm out in the public ... I don't get through one single day without people coming up, "What was that guy's name you played?" People are a riot. Do you get tired of hearing that? King: No. It's a privilege if anybody knows about our sport. Are you kidding? Tennis is great because it's a team sport and an individual sport. You can do whatever floats your boat. And it's a lifetime sport. We have 95-and-over leagues now. ... You mentioned one of the things you love about it is that you can play both individual and team, and you did pretty well in both. What do you think is the ultimate measure of a player's greatness? Is it simply sheer number of Slams, is it Career Slam, or something more? King: That's what you guys have done. In my generation, we didn't worry about the Slams. Every year in January I was playing in a Virginia Slims tournament. I couldn't even play in the Australian during some of my best years. Rod Laver missed five years, from '62 to '68. I mean, the guy didn't get to play at Wimbledon for five years when he was at his top. So when you talk about Borg winning five in a row and all that, you have to understand the history, you have to have these caveats. Otherwise people don't really understand. When we started professional tennis, we weren't really worried about majors, we were worried about making a living. So the WTA and the ATP are the ones who forced the majors to do so well. I wanted us to be together, the men and the women, and they didn't want us. So that's the reason we started women's professional tennis in 1970 when nine of us signed a $1 contract. But that's not what I wanted. I've never gotten what I want. What I want, I want the two associations working together side-by-side, being one voice for the sport. I want team tennis, I want to have a team season and an individual season so our fans can understand what the heck is going on. I don't think most people understand how it works. The players keep thinking they're everything. No, the fans are everything. So I am very big, especially in this country, on teams. Kids want to play on teams. ... that's been my 40-year mantra. Which did you prefer as a player? Individual or team? King: Oh, I preferred team. Mixed doubles was my favorite. And then doubles. And then singles. I love singles too. I think it's always good to have that experience as an individual where you're accountable for every ball. I think it's fantastic. But I prefer collaboration, and when I played team tennis I was at my happiest. You played against some of the greatest of all time. Which of your peers was the toughest for you to play against? King: Well, I think every athlete would say this — "Besides yourself?" Because that's really what gets in the way, more than anything. I think Maria Bueno ... and then obviously Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina (Navratilova). Although I liked playing left-handers, I must say. ... I just think every generation gets better. It's great. I love it. The most important thing is it keeps us connected to each other. I think that makes it the most fun for everybody. Final question — You put up a staggering 6-0, 6-0, 5-0 scoreline before the Geico caveman walked off the court in your match. Just how were you able to dominate him so thoroughly? King: (laughs) Well, you know what I just said about you're your own worst enemy? ... That's the caveman personified. To read more on the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup, click here.

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