Seven Questions For Billie Jean King

The tennis legend on her AIDS fundraiser, how to better teach the sport and that Michael Jackson song 

Photo by Andrew Coppa Photography

Photo by Andrew Coppa Photography

The 23rd annual Mylan WTT Smash Hits benefits the Elton John AIDS Foundation and Aid for AIDS of Nevada. How did your involvement begin?

Elton and I have been friends since 1973, and we always wanted to do music and sports together, so when he started his foundation, [World Team Tennis Commissioner and my partner] Ilana Kloss said this is your chance to do music and tennis together. He was thrilled. He used to watch me play World Team Tennis, and he wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” for me. That was a great gift to the people of Philadelphia and a signature song for the team, and now actually I own the team!

What are you most looking forward to in Las Vegas?

I’ve been going to Caesars Palace since the ’60s! It’s like home for me when I go to Vegas. We used to have the Alan King Tennis Classic there. We’ve always wanted to have Smash Hits in Las Vegas, and Elton plays at Caesars so that makes it easy on him. The bottom line is to raise funds to help people with HIV/AIDS. … Mylan [a global pharmaceutical company) spends a lot of time to make sure that the people who need HIV/AID medication, in Africa or wherever, can get them and educate the people to make sure they take them in a timely fashion.

We also want to make the event fun and entertaining for the fans. We have a great lineup this year. [Andre Agassi, Stefanie Graf, Martina Navratilova, Andy Roddick and James Blake are scheduled to appear.] Team Billie Jean and Team Elton are tied at 11 wins apiece.

You’ve helped change the narrative of equal rights for women in this country. At age 71, describe the sense of satisfaction.

I’m not finished yet. I started the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative last year, and I’ve always been very inclusive of both genders. When a woman leads, people tend to think we’re only trying to help women and that’s not true. Everyone is an influencer, and we influence all genders depending on how people self-identify.

The Leadership Initiative is working on equal pay for equal work for everyone. We do need more women on boards of corporations; [studies have shown] a corporation has a better bottom line if it has at least three women on the board.

Are you optimistic about gay rights now?

Very. It’s been a real grassroots movement. People have had courage. They stood up, and they’ve fought for things. It’s about inclusion and that everyone has equal opportunities and rights all the time under the law. I’m more optimistic than pessimistic. If you asked me 20 years ago, I might have said the opposite, I don’t know.

What’s your advice to teens who are dealing with bullies or loneliness or discrimination, especially in today’s context of social media?

Stay off social media if it’s bothering you, if it’s getting you in trouble or hurting your feelings. Seek out people you know who love you unconditionally. And you do have to have a safe place if you want to come out—it’s not easy. People say, “Why don’t you just come out?” It depends on what culture they grew up in, and their parents or caregivers. Every single person’s situation is different, and they have to make that judgment.

The sport of tennis appears healthy globally, but is less prominent in the U.S. than it was in the ’80s or ’90s. What can be done to move the needle in the U.S.?

It would help to have a male champion again, and we need someone besides Serena [Williams] to come up through the pipeline. We also have to change how we deliver our sport. Get rid of the word “lesson” and have children, when they sign up for tennis, put on teams. They practice their skills as a team and make it more fun. You’re not as isolated that way, which is very important for young people. It’s more exhilarating when you win on a team but less disappointing as a team if you lose because you absorb it from each other and you take care of each other.

I would get rid of the term “teaching pro.” They’re all coaches—kids love coaches. Most “teaching pros” have a basket of balls and all they want to do is give hourly  ‘lessons’ and make money. You look at soccer, you look at other sports, there is more involvement with parents and they don’t limit it to one hour a week. Most kids in sports practice [at least] twice a week, and then they have a game on the weekends. We’re not set up that way, and I want us to be set up that way.

So “Philadelphia Freedom” was written for you. How about Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”?

“Billie Jean” is fantastic because of the beat. I sat next to Quincy Jones at Elton John’s Oscar party, and I asked, “Just set me straight on this, I wasn’t in mind at all, right? He said, “We actually talked about you, but, no. It wasn’t about you. We said, ‘not my lover.’” So that was real clear.

Mylan WTT Smash Hits

Oct. 12, 5 p.m. VIP reception and live auction, 7 p.m. team tennis match, $45-$125 ($500 VIP), Caesars Palace,

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