Sandwiched between three Center City skyscrapers, there was a small, temporary tennis net no taller than two feet. There were no lines or officials, no big crowds and just a DJ along with a couple of promotional tents to the side.
With the tiniest of rackets in their hands, unsuspecting passersby stopped during their lunch break, dressed in suits and high heels, to hit the yellow fuzz around – even if just for a few minutes.
It was a far cry from the hallowed grass courts at Wimbledon, a place where former world No. 1 Billie Jean King won half of her 12 career Grand Slam titles. And yet, there she was, playing the sport that made her an icon, as the 74-year-old made a stop at the Philadelphia Freedoms’ pop-up event Thursday morning.“It’s really inspiring [for kids] and if you can see it, you can be it,” King said. “I remember when I watched Althea Gibson when I was 13 and it changed my whole life because she was No. 1 in the world, first African-American to win a major – she’s our Jackie Robinson in tennis. I saw her play and then I had her book and I slept with the book and I slept with a racket, but I understood what it meant to be No. 1.”
Since 1974, King has been connected with the Freedoms. She played in Philadelphia during the inaugural World TeamTennis season that summer, and when the Freedoms were revived in 2001, King returned as the team’s owner.
Now, she’s more than just a proprietor in absentia – King is an ambassador for the sport and the league. Fans can often see her at the team’s matches and even if she’s not there, the Freedoms’ mascot, Nettie King, is an ode to Billie Jean, with her signature red-framed glasses and all – just switch out a giant tennis ball for the head.
Even though she was born in California and lives in New York, King has a deep connection to the City of Brotherly Love.
“I’ve been coming here forever. I’ve been here since I was 15 playing in the summers,” King said. “I love history and the first thing I wanted to see was Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. … I had a real connection there with Philadelphia, and all the junior tournaments used to be at one of the cricket clubs, be it Germantown, Philadelphia or Merion.”
Not only did King’s passion for America’s birthplace bring her to Philadelphia, but it’s what has kept her here.
“I’m big on community and we give back to the community like we’ve done in Hunting Park where I helped in resurfacing the courts and we’ve got Legacy [Youth Tennis and Education] to do the programming there,” King said. “Our job is to be in the community every day, giving back.
“I like changing things. I like having a dream and then building it. I’ve always been that way since I’ve been a kid, and I know I’m very lucky. I’ve been so blessed that I’m in a position to help.”
The Freedoms will have one night during their summer schedule where they hope to bring in a large number of young fans, giving away rackets to kids as they come in the doors at St. Joseph’s Hagan Arena. King explained, though, that it is not just about that match – the Freedoms hope to be a family affair all the time, as they’ll play six home matches in the span of just two weeks.
Whether it’s seventh-ranked Kevin Anderson, who is set to play twice, or younger stars like 22-year-old Taylor Townsend, World TeamTennis is a chance to see elite athletes up close and in person.
That’s what King believes will inspire kids to take up the sport that helped her get here.
“If you come out and watch the Freedoms, you understand what pro tennis looks like and maybe you want to play for your hometown team,” King said. “If you’re playing tennis, that means you’re exercising and tennis really helps [in all areas of life.]”