By Maurice Pinzon
At a time when Mayor League Baseball and the Tour de France have been blemished by doping scandals, fresh air on a hot day blew through Queens as renowned tennis player Billie Jean King was honored by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for her personal and athletic accomplishments.
At a news conference last Thursday that was attended by the USTA’s Chief Executive of Professional Tennis Arlen Kantarian and the USTA’s Chairman of the Board and President Franklin Johnson, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former mayor David N. Dinkins, the USTA announced the renaming of the USTA tennis center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Ms. King first heard the news, appropriately enough, while in the middle of a tennis game. She was still in disbelief at the news conference days later.
Ms. King did not just bathe in the acclaim but also reveled in the USTA’s gesture, quickly emphasizing to the media and guests the significance of the USTA’s decision. The USTA had passed up the opportunity to sell the center’s naming rights to a corporate sponsor. Mayor Bloomberg characterized it as “a symbolic and classy gesture.”
Moments before Ms. King spoke, Mayor Bloomberg also said, “Her vision, her determination, her insistence that women players be offered the same dignity and respect, not to mention the same prize money as their male counterparts — this truly built the modern game.”
Mayor Bloomberg thanked Ms. King on behalf of his two daughters. One of them, Georgina Bloomberg, competes in equestrian events and the mayor has said he hopes one day to see her compete in the Olympics.
Ms. King said she was honored to have her name stand side by side with the likes of the late Louis Armstrong (one of the tennis stadiums at the USTA is named after the great jazz musician who lived in Corona, Queens) and the late Arthur Ashe, an African-American tennis player who was a trailblazer in his own right.
Ms. King recalled that she and her brother had their “parents dance in the den. We’d always say, ‘Dance, Mom! Dance, Dad!’ And of course, Louis Armstrong was a big part of that, listening to all his great music.”
And then later on, taking questions from reporters, Ms. King recalled that she herself had danced with Arthur Ashe after they both had won the singles title at Wimbledon in 1975, both sporting Afro hairstyles. “His was real. Mine was a perm,” she added.
They both danced for civil rights, too. Ms. King recalled the conversations she had with Mr. Ashe. Both spent 14 years as television commentators for the same network. We “talked about our sport, human rights — everything,” she added.
But perhaps her brightest moment in the spotlight was when she beat Bobby Riggs, who challenged her to a tennis match in what was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes” because Mr. Riggs wanted to prove that even though he was past his prime, he still could beat a women’s tennis champion.
Ms. King defeated Mr. Riggs in that match in 1973.
Looking back on that day, Ms. King said, “It’s great when men and women can walk side by side and share. As I said when I played Bobby Riggs, that what this has always been about [is] equal opportunity for boys and girls.”
Ronnie M. Eldridge, who at one point in her career worked at Ms. Magazine and was executive producer of a feminist series on public television, described in a telephone conversation with New York News Network how people gathered to watch the tennis match between Ms. King and Mr. Riggs.
Ms. Eldridge said, “We had a big party at the house when we lived in a brownstone. It was a big thing, and [King] was a big feminist symbol. Women were all excited about her.”
Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women in New York and a big tennis fan herself, agreed that Ms. King was a great athlete but pointed out that there had been great female athletes before her.
Ms. Ossorio said that what was different about Ms. King was that “she had this charisma, felt this confidence, and this aura about her.”
Ms. Ossorio said Ms. King “took the spotlight, she had so much gusto, she was so competitive.”
“Women today just want to win so badly. They’re great athletes and they’re so ambitious, and she was really the first to show that,” Ms. Ossorio added.