Believe it or not, Billie Jean King – who won 12 singles titles and 16 women’s doubles titles – did not even know what tennis was until fifth grade.
“As a child, I grew up in team sports,” the tennis legend said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “They’ve proven if you do cross sports as a youngster, you do much better when you finally get down to what you’re going to do. Hockey doesn’t allow the kids to play all year round. But they’re smart – because you’re a better athlete and they want you to be the best athlete you can be. So why wouldn’t you have kids do (multiple) sports, especially when they’re young? Of course you have to end up specializing eventually.”
King might never have specialized in tennis had it not been for a fellow classmate who one day asked if she wanted to play. King’s response?
As King’s friend explained, it was a sport that involved running, jumping and hitting a ball. Those were three of King’s favorite things.
King and her friend went to a country club to play, but King didn’t care for the atmosphere. Her father was a firefighter, and her mother was a homemaker. A country club was far too stuffy for her.
King, however, discovered that she could take free lessons at a park. She asked her father to buy her a tennis racket, but he refused. Kids always say they want to do something and then change their minds, King recalls her father saying. If you want a racket, figure it out.
King asked neighbors for donations.
“I bought my first racket for eight dollars and 29 cents,” she said. “I went out to the public park, (and) at the end of that instruction, I said, ‘I want to be No. 1 in the world.’”
King did just that – and she revolutionized the sport along the way.
“(When I first started playing), everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white cloths , played with white balls and everybody who played was white,” King said. “So at 12, my question was, ‘Where’s everybody else?’ Then I started saying, ‘I got to change it. I’ve got to change the world. How am I going to do this?’ So basically what I decided that day (was) I was going to fight for equal opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. That was going to be my life. And what I do now is team tennis, which is men and women on the same team. We had our 40th season this past summer. I knew tennis would be my platform or my way (to change things).”
At the age of 7, King, now 71, told her mother that she was going to do something great with her life – and she did. She is perhaps best known for beating Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes in 1973, which helped even the playing field for men’s and women’s sports.
“I didn’t say I wanted to be famous,” King said. “Too many kids worry about being famous. I wanted to be accomplished and I wanted to do something special. I wanted to do something beyond myself. It wasn’t about me. My parents were very good about the way they raised us.”