Billie Jean King exclusive interview: 'I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to help shape the future'

Tennis legend on having Fed Cup renamed after her, fighting for equality and how she sustains her energy and drive for change

The Fed Cup has been renamed after Billie Jean King, the first time a major global team competition has been named after a woman
The Fed Cup has been renamed after Billie Jean King, the first time a major global team competition has been named after a woman Credit: Srdjan Stevanovic

Billie Jean King recalls every detail from June 20 1963.

She was just 19, playing in the inaugural Fed Cup final, and remembers the incessant British summertime rain which moved them off the Queen's Club grass and into the indoor courts. She remembers she and doubles partner Darlene Hard going down match points in the second set to the Australians, Margaret Smith (nee Court) and Lesley Turner (nee Bowrey), in the pivotal rubber. She remembers telling Hard they could still win it, before they took the second set in a dramatic 13-11 scoreline - before tie-breaks were introduced - and being crowned the first ever champions thereafter.

Back then, it was called the Federation Cup and now, over half a century later, it is being renamed as the Billie Jean King Cup - in honour of the woman who has lifted the trophy the most of anyone in its history, 10 times as player and captain. Despite the complete rebrand, King is a globally recognisable figure that will provide grounding for a tournament that has struggled for attention and underwent a major overhaul in its format just last year.

It is the first time a major global team competition has been named after a woman, and King says she is not yet used to the idea of it: "I was pretty much in shock when I first heard about it. To have my name on the Fed Cup - well now I guess it’s the Billie Jean King Cup. How am I going to say that? I can't do that. I'm going to call it BJK Cup or something like that.

"It's a real honour and I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to help shape the future - I hope that we can all make a big difference."

King is arguably the person who has made the greatest difference to tennis in the sport's history, as the WTA's founding president. To have the women's rights activist on the tournament letterhead starting this year feels timely for a number of reasons. Firstly, 2021 will be the first time the women's team tournament will have an equal prize pot to its male equivalent, the Davis Cup. "Money is important," she says, "it sends a very strong message. That’s why I get furious when a woman doesn’t make as much."

It is an issue she has pushed her entire career - and this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Slims Invitational. The pivotal tournament was launched by King and eight of her contemporaries, in a revolt against unequal prize money and unfair treatment for women. Virginia Slims and the 'Original Nine' as the players became known, got the ball rolling to create the WTA three years later - joining all existing women's tennis tournaments under one umbrella organisation built on the principle of equal opportunity for women in sports.

Billie Jean King celebrates with the United States team winning the Fed Cup in 1963 Credit: TopFoto

King is by no means expecting to simply serve as a figurehead in her new role though, the 76-year-old is enthusiastic about the global platform this offers her. Despite being a pioneer, and being of the opinion that the team element to the tournament is a selling point the sport has not capitalised on enough, she is intent on listening to others on their views on how to progress the sport: "I'm going to ask people for their opinions - how can we make it better at grassroots? How can we help develop our sport? I never had an opportunity like this my whole life. And I certainly am not going to take it lightly."

Her energy and unending drive is remarkable after all this time. But she would argue that her work is far from over. Prize money remains unequal at mixed gender tour events outside of the majors, and still in 2020 female players are relegated to outside courts and lower profile time slots in tournament scheduling. During the pandemic, with both the ATP and WTA tours on hold, debate around whether the two should merge resurfaced.

"Just wondering,” 20-time major champion Roger Federer tweeted in April, "am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united?” The irony of course, is that King has been beating this very drum for five decades: "I tried to get it together in the late 1960s. And they looked at me like, ‘yeah right, see ya later’."

Roger Federer floated the idea of a merger between the ATP and WTA earlier this year Credit: AP

While King has always been a history nut, Federer clearly had not done his research. "I started laughing when I saw the tweet. Everyone's calling me, saying Roger is tweeting about combining - he doesn't know you tried, and I said ‘guys, it doesn't matter - it’s great he's bringing it up'.

"He and I talked that day, actually - after he tweeted. He said, ‘I guess I didn't realise you thought about this or wanted this a long time ago', and I said yeah, I was laughing. I said they'll listen to you because you're a guy and because of who you are - I mean Federer, come on, the greatest ever and all that. People will listen to men a lot more than women - I don't have to like that, but it's true.

"I said to him, 'You are the perfect person for this, because you have two sets of twins, two boys and two girls - you have equality at home'. I said it would be great if you would keep it going, but I think he’s let it drop. I wish he would push it, but I don't really know what's going on behind the scenes."

With the resumption of tennis, little more has been said on the matter. Much of the opposition back in May was from those who argue women have more to gain from a merger than the men, as the WTA garners much lower revenue and less lucrative broadcast deals. Steve Simon, WTA chief executive, also was criticised by some for telling the Telegraph Sport that equal prize money did not need to be an immediate priority.

What King is sure of, is that tennis is stronger together than apart: "What tennis has to understand is please don't keep arguing among ourselves so much because we have to figure out how to compete against other sports - we need to be working together."

King knows better than most that schisms in tennis are no new thing, and Novak Djokovic's latest efforts to form a new independent player association is as baffling to her as to other observers - including Federer and Rafael Nadal who both oppose it. "I don’t know what the heck he’s trying, I don’t know if he knows how hard it is," she quips disparagingly.

King drew heat last week on the subject of Djokovic, after he unceremoniously defaulted from the US Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge with a ball. Afterwards, she tweeted "the rules are the rules", but was accused of double standards after she had openly criticised umpire Carlos Ramos when he delivered three championship-ending code violations to Serena Williams in the final of the same tournament in 2018. King is resolute in her assessment though.

"They're totally different - Djokovic's was clear and straightforward. I will stick up for what I was watching Serena going through. I wasn’t just seeing tennis, I was seeing almost 400 years of slavery in our country and women are not supposed to be angry - and black women are not allowed to be angry. I was seeing history in my head."

Billie Jean King is a big fan of Naomi Osaka and the work she is doing on and off the court Credit: Getty Images

Both Williams and her victor that day, Naomi Osaka, are part of the Original Nine's legacy. According to Forbes, nine of the world’s ten highest-paid female athletes this year were tennis players, head and shoulders above the rest of women's sports. King wants to help progress other sports, and told the Telegraph Sport she intends to get involved with newly announced Los Angeles women's football outfit Angel City, which is part-owned by Williams and her family.

Osaka was top of that Forbes list, and spent the past fortnight at the US Open as a player-activist, highlighting racial injustice and police brutality before she took the title for a second time.

"I love her," King says of the Japanese player. "We text, we talk. She understands the then and the now, which is unusual. She's very thoughtful, I love the way she speaks. Then you’ve got Coco Gauff coming up, and boy, can she speak. She thinks like a 40-year-old and she's 16. She's amazing.

"My dream comes true every time I see these kids use tennis as a platform because, I mean, hello, that’s what we did. We created the platform and then used it to further equality."