Billie Jean King
talks Fed Cup, Net Generation
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 11, 2019
Before the U.S. Fed Cup team renewed its World Group battle with Australia on Sunday, Billie Jean King was presented with the Fed Cup Commitment Award on the U.S. Cellular Center court in Asheville, N.C., in honor of her long-standing dedication to representing Team USA in the prestigious competition. King was an eight-time Fed Cup champion, compiling a 52-4 overall record in Fed Cup as a player, and she was a part of the first Fed Cup championship team with the U.S. in 1963. She also served as captain of Team USA in 1995-96 and 1998-2001.
King was on hand in Asheville for both days of the thrilling tie and spoke with the media on Saturday before receiving her award, covering topics ranging from Fed Cup to Net Generation and the importance of grass-roots tennis.
Q. What does it mean to be here for Fed Cup?
Billie Jean King: First, Fed Cup. I keep telling Kathy, I love Fed Cup. I love team, Fed Cup being a team. Always in touch with Kathy. I want us to do well. I want Fed Cup to do well. But we also have friends here. We got double benefit for being here. We're so excited to be here just to experience Fed Cup again.
Q. You had a great Fed Cup career yourself, 52-4 record.
Billie Jean King: I had no idea.
Q. The wins and losses kind of blend in, but what stays with you all these years later?
Billie Jean King: The first one. It was played at Queen's Club. They invited 16 teams, the top countries in the world, just to see how this would go. We were there, and it started pouring. If you look at the list, they'll say it was on grass. It actually was not on grass. We started on grass, but we ended up going indoors on these gray boards, so fast at Queen's Club.
We played Australia in the finals. It was Lesley Turner and Margaret Court against Darlene Hard and me. We were down three or four match points. Our captain, Bill Kellogg Sr., got so excited, he about fell off the benches. We had to go retrieve him, put him back together. Darlene, I could feel her maybe like, "OK, we're not going to win." I just remember yelling at her, saying, “Darlene, we can win this.” We were down match point at the time. I said, “We are going to win this. Let's go.” She says, “OK, let's go.” And we did. We were so lucky because the boards were so fast.
So I wanted us to be the first in history. That's important to me. History is very important to me. I knew we were the first. I said, “We have to be the first.” Carole Caldwell was the other person on that team. I could remember a lot. I'm the last generation. When we're out of here, you won't hear the real story. So I just gave you the story.
Q. You spent some time with the 14-and-under girls who traveled with Player Development to the tie on Friday. Can you describe that experience and what you did with them?
Billie Jean King: They were great. First of all, they ended up being really great kids. I want to stay in touch with them now. By the end of it, the second half, we had so much fun. I talked to them about the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. They were wondering. They just started thinking. I got Althea Gibson in there, I got Arthur Ashe in there. It's Black History Month. I was trying to say that.
We talked about leadership. We talked about relationships. I have these three things I talk about in speeches, whether it's 60-year-olds, 100-year-olds or 15-year-olds, which is that relationships are everything. Keep learning. Keep learning how to learn. Also, be a problem-solver. The coaches were talking about decision-making on the court, how quickly we have to make decisions. If you look at that third one, the problem-solver, they really got into all that. They started really asking questions.
They learned a little about the history of women's tennis and what a difficult time we had, the original nine in 1970, the birth of women's professional tennis. They asked, “How did you guys do that? Weren't you scared?” I said, “Yeah, we were very scared.” It was a very tough time for us. I wanted the men and women to be together. The men rejected us. It's a long story. We talked about when we formed the WTA.
We did a lot. They started speaking up a lot more because I kept asking questions. I coach by asking questions. I don't coach by telling, usually. I really ask questions. I have them discuss something together. Just let them struggle. They'll figure it out.
We just really kept fine-tuning how champions think, really. Why is someone a champion? Why are they not? Everyone says mental toughness. I don't personally agree with that. It's emotional and mental toughness. Obviously, mental is what you think, emotional is what you feel. But the ones who win the most are stronger emotionally, not just mentally. It's emotional when you get down to really crucial times in a match.
Q. Pretty exciting time for American tennis, especially women's tennis, all the young women coming up. Even this team. You have Sonya, who is 20. You have Danielle, fairly new to the tour.
Billie Jean King: Danielle is great. She went to college. I've been following her for a while. I'm very interested in players going to college. I think a lot of them should go to college. The socialization that goes on in college allows them to come from college to the tour and survive a lot easier, understand the culture, adapt faster. They're a little bit older, been socialized in college, been on a team. Some of them think of someone besides themselves. You have to remember that if you grow up in tournament tennis as a child, if that's all you know, you're always by yourself. That's not good.
Q. We've been hosting kids' days all week. We had 1,000 children in this building. Tennis has grown in the area. We have youth participation in double-digits.
Billie Jean King: Why do you think that? Do you think Fed Cup has helped?
Q. That's my question to you.
Billie Jean King: Absolutely. We are motivators when you're at the top. We're not the sheroes and the heroes. Those are the people helping the children. Those are the real sheroes and heroes. We can motivate and inspire. When you bring the best into a city, it makes a huge difference. The community, I can tell, has really gotten behind it. When you create excitement, children see excitement, they get excited. I think it's great what you've done.
But I think Fed Cup, I'm sure it was the catalyst. That's why we need everything at the top and at the grass roots. I'm a huge believer in grass roots. If they don't get them to play, we're in trouble. I think we need a critical mass. We need to get the best athletes in the sport. There's no reason we can't have millions and millions of young people playing.
I know the USTA has made a huge jump—Craig Morris with Net Generation. Everybody worked their backside off to make this happen. Tell everyone thank you for doing what I call the real work, which is on the grass-roots level.