By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
A lunch with Billie Jean King served a reminder of how tennis can nourish a nation – inspiring men and women of all ages to accomplish great things.
"I was blessed to have a great career, but more importantly, tennis has given me my platform to continue my lifelong quest for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls and men and women," said King, addressing an audience of colleagues, journalists and fans at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, D.C.
"Since I was 12 years old, I had an epiphany, and I've promised I would dedicate my life to that goal until the day I die."
King's speech kicked off the first-ever USTA Advocacy Days, designed to highlight the work the organization has done in communities throughout the country and propose new ways to engage a nationwide network of tennis players.
Inside of one hour, a timeline exceeding 50 years and countless outlier triumphs evoked memories, both personal and sociological, for the 68-year-old King and many in the room, beginning with an introduction from a fifth-grade friend in a Long Beach, Calif., park and clutching the best purple-trimmed racquet $8.29 saved could buy in her sleep soon after.
The late Arthur Ashe had a similar start, as did Chris Evert, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors and the Williams sisters – all public parks kids, part of the ever-increasing population of participants who drive the game in the U.S.
After being introduced by NPC President Theresa Werner, King spoke for about 25 minutes, referencing the accomplishments of various USTA programs and initiatives before taking questions from the audience. Also seated at the head table were USTA Chairman of the Board and President Jon Vegosen, USTA First Vice President David Haggerty and Kevin Wensing, a member of the USTA Advocacy and Public Affairs Committee.
"I come to you today as one of my proudest achievements: I'm one of over 27 million recreational tennis players [in the U.S.]," said King. "Tennis has been the fastest-growing traditional sport since the year 2000. We currently have over 800,000 adult league participants from 18 to 88... and that is just adults.
"Most people think tennis is only played in clubs. I meet people all the time who think, ‘Oh, it’s a country-club sport.’ Over 70 percent of tennis is played in public parks."
King cited that since 2005, the USTA has either built or refurbished more than 25,000 courts in the U.S. with the goal of creating fun and safe community hubs with tennis programming, a number that will likely reach 30,000 by the end of 2012.
The rapid growth of the game during King’s timeline and the boom in public tennis facility construction was born from social upheaval. Title IX was introduced 40 years ago, when just 29,000 women played varsity sports at the university level as compared to 170,000 men. The disparity in high schools was even worse: Fewer than 300,000 high school girls played varsity sports, compared with 3.7 million high school boys.
Just one year later, the defending US Open champion King – who took home $15,000 less in prize money than men’s champion Ilie Nastase – took on and defeated male tennis star Bobby Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, inside the Astrodome in Houston in straight sets during the now-famous "Battle of the Sexes" exhibition. The win was a watershed moment for tennis’ popularity in the U.S.
"Men come up to me in their 40s and 50s today, a lot of times with tears in their eyes, and they say how much that match changed their whole perception, how they have a daughter and how they're going to raise her," said King. "That they insist that their boys and girls, their sons and daughters, have equal opportunity. … President Obama was 12 years old when I played that, and he’s told me the story, too."
At the professional level, it was prime validation for the unprecedented decision that same year to award equal prize money to both the male and female champions at the 1973 US Open. In towns around the country, King’s victory served to inspire young women to compete in all facets of life, namely sports. A total of 3.1 million high school girls now play on high school varsity teams and another 170,000 play in college, amounting to a 940-percent increase when compared to four decades ago.
Yet the legacy of Title IX is almost always misunderstood, according to King.
"Title IX, it was about education, it wasn’t about sports. Sports was tagged on as a last-minute thought. Before 1972, the quotas at the Harvards of the world were five percent, if you wanted to be a woman doctor, if you wanted to be a woman lawyer. These were our forward-thinking educators. A woman could not get an athletic scholarship until the fall of 1972. And there weren’t very many in the fall of 1972. I can tell you, a lot of schools resisted on changing the law."
Another common misconception to King is that Title IX shuts down men’s sports, diluting the point that the recent decline in athletic programs at the collegiate level is more to do with economic than social change, affecting both genders equally and posing a great threat to tennis.
"Believe me, both men and women sports are being dropped in certain universities and colleges," said King. "The one thing I keep telling the athletic directors: ‘Do not get rid of tennis. Do not get rid of men’s tennis or women’s tennis because we are a lifetime sport and we have obesity in this country and we should be encouraging lifetime sports in our universities if we're going to have a healthy nation.'"
King continued the thought by providing a factoid courtesy of the Women’s Sport Foundation, which she founded in 1974: If the average American girl does not regularly exercise by the age of 10, there’s roughly a 90 percent chance she will not engage in exercise for the rest of her life.
Part of the solution: 10 and Under Tennis, which assimilates children successfully into tennis from a much earlier age than generations past, with smaller courts, smaller racquets, lower-bouncing balls and modified scoring to get kids rallying and competing right away.
"10 and Under Tennis is going to help fight childhood obesity, which we all know is epidemic in this country," said King. "We're going to get kids active. …Not only do we want to get them started, we want to keep them going forever."
The luncheon concluded with a playful moment, as King lobbed low-compression balls designed for 10 and Under Tennis into the sold-out Holeman Lounge crowd. King reminded the audience that the 10 and Under initiative may be directed towards kids, but it can also lengthen playing days for older folks, too.
"What's good for the kids is good for us mature people - AARP, are you listening?" said King with a laugh. "This helps us, too. We don’t have as much space to cover because the ball is a little slower.
"You’ll get a lot of generations together. It’s really fun; I love it."