10 The Daily Telegraph Friday 18 September 2020 *** Sport Tennis ‘My dream comes true every time I see these kids use tennis as a platform to drive equality’ B illie Jean King recalls every detail from June 20, 1963. She was just 19, and playing in the inaugural Fed Cup final, the incessant British summer rain driving them off the Queen’s Club grass to the indoor courts. She and doubles partner Darlene Hard went down match points in the second set to the Australians in the pivotal rubber. She remembers telling Hard not to give up, as they went on win the set with a dramatic 13-11 scoreline (before tie-breaks were introduced) and then took the third to be crowned the first champions. Back then it was called the Federation Cup. Now, over half a century later, it is being renamed the Billie Jean King Cup, in honour of the woman who lifted the trophy more often than anyone, 10 times as player and captain. King, of course, is more famous than the tournament itself, which has long struggled for the highest level of media coverage. It is the ideal rebranding. It is also the first time a global team competition has been named after a woman. King says she is not yet used to the idea: “I was in shock when I first heard about it. To have my name on the Fed Cup – well now I guess it’s the Billie Jean King Cup. How am I going to say that? I can’t do that. I’m going to call it the BJK Cup or something. “It’s a real honour and I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to help shape the future. I hope that we can all make a big difference.” The news comes ahead of the first year that the event will have an equal prize pot to its male equivalent, the Davis Cup. “I get furious when a woman doesn’t make as much,” says the Women’s Tennis Association founding president, who has campaigned on this issue her entire career. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Slims Invitational, the pivotal tournament launched by King and eight contemporaries, in a revolt against unequal prize money and unfair treatment of women. Virginia Slims and the “Original Nine”, as the players became known, got the ball rolling to create the WTA three years later – joining all women’s tennis under one umbrella organisation. At 76, King has lost none of her energy or drive for change. Prize money remains unequal at mixedgender keep it going, but I think he’s let it drop. I wish he would push it, but I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.” With the resumption of tennis, little more has been said on the matter. Those who oppose it argue women have more to gain from a merger than men, as the WTA has lower revenue and less lucrative broadcast deals. Steve Simon, WTA chief executive, was criticised by some for telling that equal prize money did not need to be an immediate priority. What King is sure of, is that tennis is stronger together than apart. Schisms in the sport are nothing new, but Novak Djokovic’s latest efforts to form an independent player association is as baffling to King as to other observers – including Federer and Rafael Nadal, who both oppose it. “I don’t know what the heck he’s trying, I don’t know if he knows how hard it is,” she says. King drew heat last week on the subject of Djokovic, after he was thrown out of the US Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge with a ball. Afterwards, she tweeted: “The rules are the rules”, but was accused of double standards after she had criticised umpire Carlos Ramos for his code violations against Serena Williams in the 2018 final. She remains resolute in her assessment, however. “They’re to- you tried’, and I said, ‘Guys, it doesn’t matter. It’s great he’s bringing it up’. “He and I talked that day, actually, after he tweeted. He said, ‘I guess I didn’t realise you thought about this or wanted this a long time ago’, and I said ‘Yeah’, I was laughing. I said, ‘They’ll listen to you because you’re a guy and because of who you are’. I mean come on, the greatest ever and all that. People will listen to men a lot more than women. I don’t have to like that, but it’s true,” King adds. “I said to him, ‘You are the perfect person for this, because you have two sets of twins, two boys and two girls – you have equality at home’. It would be great if he would events outside of the majors, and female players are still relegated to smaller courts and lower-profile time slots in the scheduling. During lockdown, when the men’s and women’s tours were on hold, debate around whether the two should merge resurfaced. “Just wondering,” 20-time major champion Roger Federer tweeted in April, “am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united?” Federer clearly had not done his research. King has been beating this drum for five decades. “I started laughing when I saw the tweet,” she says. “Everyone’s calling me, saying, ‘Roger is tweeting about combining – he doesn’t know tally different – Djokovic’s was clear and straightforward. I will stick up for Serena. I wasn’t just seeing tennis, I was seeing 400 years of slavery in our country and how women are not supposed to be angry – and black women are not allowed to be angry. I was seeing history in my head.” Both Williams and her victor that day, Naomi Osaka, are part of the Original Nine’s legacy. According to nine of the world’s 10 highest-paid female athletes this year are tennis players. King wants to help progress other sports and says that she intends to get involved with the Los Angeles women’s football outfit Angel City, part-owned by Williams and her family. Osaka was top of that list, and spent the past fortnight at the US Open as a player-activist, highlighting racial injustice and police brutality before she took the title for a second time. “I love her,” King says. “We text, we talk. She understands the then and the now, which is unusual. Then you’ve got Coco Gauff coming up, and boy, can she speak. She thinks like a 40-year-old and she’s 16. She’s amazing. “My dream comes true every time I see these kids use tennis as a platform because, I mean, hello, that’s what we did. We created the platform and then used it to further equality.” The Daily Telegraph Forbes, Forbes
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