The easy part was Billie Jean King figuring out what she wanted to do with her life. Implementing the plan proved somewhat more challenging.
"When I was 12, I had an epiphany that I wanted to change things, socially. But I could not have done it without tennis," King, 63, said yesterday at Cabrini College, where the winner of 39 Grand Slam titles and social activist was the featured speaker at a luncheon to hype the 2007 World Team Tennis season of the defending champion Freedoms, which begins July 5.
WTT, which she and then-husband Larry King co-founded in 1974, is just another vehicle for King's still-ambitious agenda for promoting gender equity. She has mellowed somewhat after nearly four decades of butting heads with the establishment, but there are still wrongs she believes need to be righted, battles that need to be fought and won. She has come to realize, however, that some mountains can only be moved one rock at a time.
"I'm not finished," she stressed. "Each day, each moment, is a journey within itself. You might have a 15- or 20-year dream, but things don't happen quickly. You've got to be patient. That's really hard for young people today, because they're so used to instant gratification.
"But the real truth for all of us is delayed gratification. It's doing the right thing every day, staying in the process. That's how you learn about your character. It's about doing the right thing, even when it's not popular."
King was as much a lightning rod for controversy as Muhammad Ali in 1973, when the feminist movement in this country was beginning to gather momentum. She railed against inequities in the prize money allocated for men and women in professional tennis, against the mind-set that the only role suitable for women in American society was that of wife, mother and homemaker. Her stridency made her a hero to some, a pariah to others.
All of which stamped her Sept. 20, 1973, exhibition match with a 55-year-old, admitted male chauvinist named Bobby Riggs as so much more than tennis. It was a forum on whether the status quo should be maintained. Riggs, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, had defeated a top-rated woman, Margaret Court, on Mother's Day of that year, ratcheting up the pressure on King to win "The Battle of the Sexes" in Houston's Astrodome.
"We had an audience of 90 million [some have pegged it at closer to 50 million]," King said. "This was before cable TV. At the time, women could not get a credit card on their own without a guy signing for them.
"I knew at the time it was about social change. Title IX had just been passed on June 23, 1972. My job, I felt, was to start to change hearts and minds to match the spirit of Title IX."
Toward that end, King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory was the first of many toppling dominoes that have earned her a flood of delayed-gratification honors. In 1990, Life magazine named her one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th Century; last Aug. 28, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and on Feb. 22 the All-England Tennis Club announced that it finally would provide equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon.
King noted that these and other successes reflect her persistence, and the gradual erosion of resistance to her concepts that once were labeled as radical.
"I always move on," King said of her evolution from 20-something firebrand to elder stateswoman. "I forgive and move on. I don't hold grudges or take things personally. I used to when I was younger, but I don't now."
One of King's wild ideas that took root and flourished was World TeamTennis. Not that you'll hear any references to forehands, overheads and drop shots in it, but Elton John's 1975 smash hit, "Philadelphia Freedom," was an homage to King and the team she played for way back then.
"We did a lot of firsts in this sport," King said of WTT. "We're the first to have a multicolored court. We're also the first [entity] to have music at tennis matches, the first to let the audience keep balls [hit into the stands]."
This year's Freedoms, again coached by Craig Kardon, feature holdovers Venus Williams, Lisa Raymond, Fred Niemeyer and Daniel Nestor. The only new player is Olga Savchuk.