Tennis superstars Chris Evert and Venus Williams discuss athlete and social icon Billie Jean King’s impact both on and off the tennis court with filmmaker James Erskine. King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including a record 20 titles at Wimbledon, and was the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A lifelong champion for social change and equality, she’s created new inroads for both genders in and out of sports. [Billie Jean King (2013)].
Michael Kantor: Thanks for joining us on the American Masters Podcast, where we pull never-before-heard interviews off the shelf and onto the airwaves. I’m your host, Michael Kantor, executive producer of the long-running PBS documentary series, American Masters. In this episode, we hear from Chris Evert and Venus Williams - two superstars in the world of tennis – as they discuss the impact of Billie Jean King on their sport. King is a former World No. 1, Hall of Fame tennis player with 39 grand slam titles to her name. A champion both on and off the court, King has been a longtime advocate for gender equality in sports, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She famously beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, then the most viewed tennis match in history. The U.S. Tennis Association named the National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006. King’s impact can be felt across American culture, especially among the women tennis players that followed in her wake. We begin with Chris Evert, 18-time Grand Slam tennis champion, as she remembers reading about Billie Jean King as a teenager.
Chris Evert: I remember reading an article in the newspaper in the late 60s, 69/70 and I was a teenager about Billie Jean King and Virgini…Rosie Casals playing a tournament, Pacific Southwest, and it was a Jack Kramer tournament and I remember the winner of the men’s received $10,000 dollars and the winner of the women’s received $1000, which was ten percent of what the men got. And I read that Billie Jean and Rosie Casals walked of the court, boycotted and um just in that alone sort of declaring, hey what’s this all about? This isn’t fair. Ten percent? Really? And I remember thinking that what so controversial, almost like whoa, they’ve got guts to do that. Can you imagine walking off the court before a final? it seemed to far away. I was this little girl who was raised a catholic and I was a good girl and I obeyed my parents and I was not exposed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to any of this sort of equality or women’s liberation or whatever and I remember thinking, that seemed like you know, worlds away from my way of thinking but it did make sense. And I was always curious to see what the result was gonna be and and that was my first introduction really to Billie Jean as she became our leader for equal prize money and for women’s rights.
Chris: I really didn’t hear about the women's movement at all until, you know, obviously Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs, that match. But Gloria Steinem came on the scene and there all of a sudden in the newspaper I was reading that women were burning their bras and that they were having riots and demonstrations.
Chris: I figured they were fighting for women’s rights, just to be equal with men in the workplace. Gloria Steinem, obviously in the workplace. Billie Jean King obviously on the , you know on the tennis court. And uh, just for women to, I guess have the freedom to make the decision of what they wanted to do. It wasn’t that they were looking down on being a wife and a mother and taking care of the house. It wasn’t that at all. It was that they just wanted women to have that right to choose. I wanna become a career woman or I wanna become a homemaker, I wanna get married or I don’t wanna be married. Um and then that was the whole time during the abortion, you know , that controversy and women, should they have rights over their body? And uh, it was all opening up for women at that stage. And it, you know, I wish I had been a little older to understand better but again, I understand now. But I didn’t really understand. I didn’t have anybody talking to me about it. I came from a very structured family where my mother had a role and my dad, my father had a role. My father was the breadwinner, and he would work all day. And my mum would take care of the kinds, take care of the house and there were roles in that day and my dad was the head of the family. No doubt about it. He wore the pants in the family and I think he made most of the decisions um, that was the 60s, you know, that was when society had roles for women and men. And women did not work. And women uh, were not equals to their men. So it was kind of ironic that I pursued a career and that in that women were powerful and women were successful and I didn’t have to get married to be successful, I didn’t have to have kids right away. How lucky are we to have had Billie Jean King in tennis, she could have been in golf. She could have been in ice-skating. You know, she could have been in gymnastics, whatever. But to have her in our sport, um it propelled our sport to number one as far as the women were concerned and it trickled. I think that every current woman tennis player should go up and shake her hand, say thank you for putting money in my pocket. You know every generation after her should do that because she put money in our pocket. And she raised the sport to be the most high profile woman’s sport in the world and it still is.
Michael Kantor: 33 years after Chris Evert won her first Wimbledon singles title in 1974, and largely due to the efforts of Billie Jean King, women were given equal prize money for the first time in the tournament. Tennis superstar Venus Williams speaks with filmmaker James Erskine about this time in 2007, and what Billie meant to her.
Venus Williams: You know what, I feel like I got involved with equal prize money because I was the main person because I was the main person that was saying something in press, so I was like, um always standing up, hopefully in a dignified way most of the time that you know, I felt like equal prize money was something that should happen so it was definitely a concerted effort, I happened just to be in the lead somehow but it was a concerted effort from the tour, from past players like Billie, Chris Evert, um to really make it something that was on the public’s mind, and also let people know it was the right thing to do and after a while I think the majors realized, yes this is the right thing to do, we should have equal prize money. It was just random you know, random weekday morning and it’s like uh, we got equal prize money, you get the word, I’m like really, that happened fast. We’ve been getting, you know, the stamp of rejection for what 30 years, so what happened now it’s like, ok put down the picket sign, relax, it’s gonna be alright, so it’s definitely happening at a time that was unexpected I think we were so used to just not, of being told no that we were just ready to fight to the end no matter how long it took, so that was definitely satisfying I think. You know, I happened to win Wimbledon that year and you know I thanked Billie in the stands and I think that was uh you know, that’s just the way it should have been. Almost fitting, she definitely deserved credit for that.
Venus: I think um for without women like Billie and the original 9 and those women who believed in something even though it’s hard to believe in, to see it though. And you have to think, these women were professional tennis players so it was a lot of work to do something outside. You have to think, not only is tennis a full time sport, but it’s a lifestyle. It’s a full time job, so to do more than tennis is extremely challenging. So especially something so stressful, so um, without them I just, I mean who can hypothesize where tennis would be. Women’s tennis would be, we’d still be, we wouldn’t be here but you can’t say.
James Erskine: How did you first meet her?
Venus: Um I first met Billie at a World Team Tennis clinic and I was probably about 8 years old and I had the time of my life. You know, I remember she pitched balls to me. Um [laughs] and uh she was so enthusiastic about the game and so encouraging for everyone who was, all the young people who were hitting balls. Um, you know, I think Billie has been a role model for everyone and for me I’ve always loved her enthusiasm for the game and I always loved it and admired her, her spirit of giving which I think comes around once in a generation. I don’t think people have that, so it’s something that I look up to and aspire to but I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna really get to that level. She’s done something that really can’t be replicated.
James: And um, you said you met her when you were 8 years old? How did your contact with her develop over the years, did you meet her more times? Was she encouraging? How did she help you progress as a player and as a human being?
Venus: Yeah I think um my you know, just really starting to get to know her started in Fed Cup and that um you know, 1999/2000. We would just have a blast on the team. She would teach us so much about tennis. She really helped me with my bank hand volley which I think is one of the best in the game right now so thank you Billie. And um, just her enthusiasm for the game. We’d just be practicing on court and she would just randomly say I love this game. So I’d be like wow, just it’s just so contagious and uh you know she would tell us stories you know about life and tennis and I think just catching on to her enthusiasm for life were my experiences – more or less as an adult though.
James: And was there anything in particular that she taught you or you felt from her that was different to other coaches that you’ve met, other managers?
Venus: Yeah, you know, my coaches are my parents so um definitely working with someone different is always, was great for me. I don’t work with a a lot of different people so it was great to just hear something a little bit different and sometimes it just clicks so that for me was nice, to hear things, the same things but a little bit differently and um I think Billie knows how to get the best out of the people she works with.
James: One similarity I really noticed in reading your biography and reading Billie’s, was the close relationship with your father as you’re starting out in sport. Do you think that it’s important? Do you think that imbued you with extra confidence? Was that important in developing you as an athlete?
Venus: I think just in general with my family, everyone was supportive. Everyone was a part of making um not only me a great tennis player, but Serena and it was a family effort, whether it was my sister picking up balls or my mum you know having to work three jobs. Whatever it took, so you know, it wasn’t just my dad and all of us made this possible. I feel like without my parents I wouldn’t be playing tennis. That’s how I got started and that’s how I got into the game. You know, if Billie hadn’t started the tour, my dad may have never seen you know, the woman get a check and say, hey my daughter should be in that, so. There would have been no checks for women, so it’s um, I guess the trickle down effect.
James: And obviously one of the things that Billie’s always talked about is access and equality. Do you feel there was a lot of prejudice towards you when you came into the sport?
Venus: I think by the time I got to the sport um I had an opportunity just to let my racket do the talking. I think when Billie Jean first started, um, you know, you had to do more than play tennis. When Althea Gibson, she really had no opportunities, so for em I felt like I had not only opportunities on the court, but opportunities off the court in terms of endorsement because of the work that um many of the leaders had done for women’s rights and also for um African American rights. So there were a lot of people before me who made it easier for me.
James: Were you aware of her Battle of the Sexes match and the story of that match?
Venus: Yeah I think everyone knows about the Battle of the Sexes and the match was a big deal and I think for Billie, I can’t imagine the pressure she was under and having known that it wasn’t the first Battle of the Sexes it was actually the second, she had a lot to prove on a much bigger stage, she went to that match focused and willing to do whatever it took cause she wasn’t just playing for her, she was playing for every woman and every young girl. You know I think it’s a situation of immense pressure, and I don’t think anyone could have coped with that situation any better than Billie could have uh were I given the chance, I would probably say no. But she didn’t say no, and that’s what made the difference.
James: And what do you think would have happened if she’d have lost to Riggs?
Venus: Nobody knows, she didn’t lose [laughs]. And there’s no alternative other than the fact that she won and I think in her head that’s how she saw it too. That she couldn’t lose. She wasn’t going to lose. It didn’t matter what it took – if they took her off on a stretcher and you know and said some closing remarks to her life, that she was going to go off the court with a win, love or die, and it wasn’t going to happen any other way.
James: One of the things that Billie talks a lot about is in the 70s particularly and when they were first founding women’s professional tennis [inaudible] the reaction of the media towards women. Do you feel that there’s a bias against women sports?
Venus: I think that women’s sports outside of tennis still has a long way to go in terms of just capturing the attention of the world and there are many wonderful women’s athletes and when you think the premier sports for women are tennis, and then you have golf. But after that, you know it does fall off in terms of opportunity to make a living, the opportunity for prominence compared to um the men’s sports, so there’s definitely some ways to go but um looks like we got time to build it up.
James: How do you think that can be changed though?
Venus: I mean, how can that be changed, that’s a big question. It has a lot to do with infrastructure and doing it the right way and thankfully for tennis it’s done the right way. I think also in terms of raising awareness and interest, so definitely not the expert on that but like I said I lived in a different time period than you know, Billie, and Althea and like I said, a lot of people had done a lot of work so I could you know focus more on the tennis then you know, having equal rights or trying to stay calm because someone was doing me wrong. So I have them to thank. I think for her she’d never realized all the things that she would give to so many people, she was just fighting for something she believed in. I don’t think she was trying to be the leader but in her heart she was a leader and she was the one. I don’t think she could have foreseen any of this but I think it goes to show that if you stand up for something if you believe in something not only can you give something to yourself but you can give something to so many others.