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Billie Jean King on ‘helicopter’ tennis parents and big ‘pay days’

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Tennis legend Billie Jean King  the prize money in modern-day sports.  (Photo by Mary Murphy)

Tennis legend Billie Jean King the prize money in modern-day sports. (Photo by Mary Murphy)

FLUSHING MEADOWS, Queens (PIX11) — She’s got 39 Grand Slam titles in tennis, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a song that was written for her by Elton John.  Yet Billie Jean King is still blown away by some things: like the prize money in modern-day sports.

“We took tennis from amateurism and $14 a day to professionalism,” the 70-year old legend said, during an appearance at the National Tennis Center that bears her name in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

“If Serena wins this tournament this year, she will get four million dollars,”
King pointed out, speaking of number one seed, Serena Williams, who– like her–is an American who was born in California. That’s more cash than King earned in her entire, professional career, which ended in 1990.

Billie Jean King went “pro” in 1959, when she was 16 years old. “I wanted to be number one in the world since I was 11,” she told a crowd of fans in the Time Warner emporium on Saturday.

The “Open” era that laid the foundation for big “pay days” began in 1968, when Arthur Ashe and Virginia Wade were the first winners in America’s international tournament, formerly played in Forest Hills, Queens.

Billie Jean King would later win four, singles titles at the U.S. Open, her last in 1974. She won six, singles titles on the grass courts at Wimbledon, one French Open on the red clay in Paris, and one Australian Open on hard court. She won many other “doubles” titles.

Women players, who are required to win two out of three sets in championship matches, used to make far less money than their male counterparts, who still must win three out of five sets in the major tournaments–called the Grand Slams.

King formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and planted the seeds for female players to win equality in prize money, especially in the major tournaments. This was the same year she trounced aging, male tennis champion, Bobby Riggs, in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome, 6-4; 6-3; 6-3. A report last year, on the match’s 40th anniversary, claimed Riggs “threw” the match, on orders from the Mafia, so he’d have a $100,000 gambling debt forgiven. King called that report “ridiculous.”

It took decades, but in the present-day U.S. Open, the top man and woman left standing after two weeks will go home with the same award–that four million dollars Billie Jean made reference to.

King now lives with a “life partner”–an icon in the equal rights and gay rights community. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and later served as a coach for the U.S. Olympic tennis team.

She talked Saturday about children needing to be children.  “I think kids need to run, catch and throw,” she said.

King made reference to the intense pressure often placed on young players to excel in tennis.

“I’ve seen ‘helicopter’ parents, particularly with colleges and universities, and it’s scary,” she observed.

She told one dad at Saturday’s gathering that his daughter was fine on a Division 3 college tennis team.
“It doesn’t matter what division you play,” she said, “It matters if you love it.”

And the Hall of Famer revealed one interesting tidbit about her tennis.
Ladies’ singles is not her preferred way to play the game.

“Mixed doubles is my favorite,” she told the mixed crowd–of admiring men and women.