Billie Jean King makes sure to keep moving
By Lou Fancher
Keep the ball in front of you, think "up," remember that the contact point is everything ... never stop moving and you too can be a winner, says all-time tennis champion Billie Jean King.
Visiting the Atria Valley View senior living community in Walnut Creek Nov. 5 as Atria Senior Living's newly-announced Active Aging Ambassador, it's hard to know whether the 70-year-old, 39-time Grand Slam titleholder and first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom is speaking about tennis, or about longevity.
Turns out the answer is both.
King took command of women's tennis in the late 1960s, and by the 70s was dominating the sport, signing a symbolic $1 contract with World Tennis Publisher Gladys Heldman to establish the Virginia Slims Circuit. Fighting for prize money equal to men's and living-wage potential for female tennis players, King worked off-court for passage of legislation known as Title IX, passed in 1972, which promised equal federal funding for boys and girls athletics in schools, colleges and universities.
In 1973, she famously beat men's tennis professional Bobby Riggs in a match titled "The Battle of the Sexes," sweeping her opponent in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The hype before the match--King arrived in a chair held aloft by bare-chested muscle men and Riggs paraded in a "Sugar Daddy"-emblazoned jacket--along with the highest-to-date for a single match $100,000 prize and King's eventual victory, insured the event would remain forever stamped on fans' memories.
King used the momentum of her notoriety to found the Women's Tennis Association ('73), Women's Sports Foundation ('74), Women's Sports Magazine ('74) and to cofound World Team Tennis ('74) and GreenSlam, an environmental initiative for the sports industry (2007). Honored for her human rights advocacy and work in the LGBT community, the National Tennis Center -- home of the U.S. Open -- was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006. And this month will mark the launch of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a research think tank devoted to workplace diversity.
King also continues to coach young players, and said in an interview, "Girls never get to learn their own voice: I always teach them to think for themselves."
Obviously not one to rest on her laurels, King is now touring some of Atria communities in 27 states. Promoting a dynamic get up, get moving lifestyle, she says dignity in aging is independence and "feeling the physical strength to be upright."
King and her partner, Ilana Kloss, have both lost their mothers within the last year. But in 2011, Kloss's mother lived in Atria West 86 in Manhattan, where King was impressed with the conscientious attention to residents' well-being and how it overlapped with her philosophies.
"Relationships, problem solving, lifelong learning. People who have inner and outer success, those three things just keep bubbling up," King says.
King's close relationship with her brother, former Major League Baseball pitcher Randy Moffitt, set her up for a future in professional sports and as a human rights advocate. The patience required -- on the court and when dealing with legislators as Title IX went through countless renditions -- was first honed by writing "Billie Jean King" against the nap of a tennis ball.
"I remember we'd practice our signatures for hours," she says. "We wanted someone to be able to read it, years later."
Looking back at the past, she says, is only helpful if it propels you forward. And asking questions is her way of teaching young players.
King remembers being at the "T," the service line, with then-rookie player Lindsay Davenport.
"I asked her, 'Have you ever thought about being number one?' I planted the seed in her brain. With all the negative media around her, all I saw was that she was the best striker in the game, had big hands and hated to lose."
King says her busy travel schedule has cut into her usual workout routine. "If I could, I'd be playing tennis," she says. "Going to the gym is fine, but it's not thrilling. My mother had a saying -- 'You have to keep moving or it's over' -- so that's what I do. I keep moving."