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No One Plays the Game Like Billie Jean King

No One Plays the Game Like Billie Jean King


Decades before the start of their relationship, Kloss—who became the number-one doubles player in 1976 and is now commissioner of World Team Tennis—met King while working as a ball girl for one of King’s matches in South Africa. “One day I was on one of the courts just hitting some tennis balls with my dad before the matches started, and Billie walked by and said, ‘Looks like she hits the ball really well. Would you mind if I came on the court and hit a few balls with her?’” Kloss says. “That one interaction, of having someone say that they saw I had talent and believed in me, changed my life. And I have seen that happen again and again and again.”

“She doesn’t just slap her name on things,” says Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, who has known King since she was a cub sports reporter in Atlanta. “If she’s going to be involved, she’s in it to win it.” King is not content to sit at dinners or pose for pictures. “She’s always pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing,” says Roberts. “And not just for herself…. She’s very inclusive but also collaborative. She’s a leader, but she wants to groom others to be leaders, to see what she knows we all have within ourselves.”

Roberts knows that from experience. When she was given the chance to pivot from sports journalism to general news, she hesitated. She confided in King, wondering how she’d react. “I’ll never forget how she looked at me, and it was almost like in Moonstruck when Cher yells, ‘Snap out of it!’ She challenged me. And she said, ‘You’re afraid. You have got to be willing to venture outside of your comfort zone. You’ll still talk about sports where you’re going, and you’re going to bring us with you to a bigger stage.’”

Kloss, as King’s both personal and professional partner (Kloss cofounded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014), has seen that relentless urging up close for decades: “I think when you’re with her, you feel like you can do anything.”

In that locker room in 1970, the Original 9 were thinking as much about future generations as they were themselves. King, goal-oriented as ever, codified their hopes for women: First, that for those who were good enough, there would be opportunities for them to compete. Second, that they would be respected for their game—not how they looked playing it. (“That’s all they talked about. They never talked about our good forehand, or if we were smart,” King says. “That was really hard to take, day in and day out.”) And third, that they would be able to make a living. “Remember, we come from the $14-a-day group,” King says. “We knew we weren’t going to make the big bucks. I didn’t even make $2 million dollars when I retired at 40—Serena [Williams] is at $93 million and still counting.”

It’s thanks to King that a cash-out like Williams’s is possible. In tennis the playing field has been leveled—of the 10 highest-paid women in sports, nine are tennis players—but women in other sports are still fighting. “Can we build a Billie Jean King for every sport?” asks Coyne Schofield, captain of the U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team.

At the U.S. Open earlier this month, Naomi Osaka, the reigning highest-paid female athlete in the world, wore a series of masks stamped with the names of unarmed Black men and women who were killed in acts of racial violence. She won her second U.S. Open title—and the $3 million in prize money that goes to both the men’s and women’s champions—standing on the courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It was the manifestation of King’s life’s work. Osaka, Williams—“somebody had to come before them, to have this platform available,” King says. “And I think it’s fantastic, because they’re using it.”

King is no longer ranked and she doesn’t vie for titles, but she isn’t watching the action from afar, either. She’s still in the thick of it. For King, there’s no such thing as being off the clock. “She hates to go to bed at night,” Kloss says. “I’ll tell her to turn the light off. She’s falling asleep. She does not want the day to end, because it’s one less day that she’s going to be on earth to accomplish something, and to take all the stuff in. She’s just so full. People always say, ‘God, you’ve done so much.’ And she gets upset. She says, ‘I’m not done yet.’”

Macaela MacKenzie is the senior health editor of Glamour and Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.

Photographed by Celeste Sloman; styled by Anatolli Smith; makeup by Sheri Kornhaber; location courtesy of the NY Historical Society; special thanks to Wilson Rackets. via Glamour

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