Achieving Greatness from Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King, also known as BJK, is an American former world No. 1 tennis player. King won 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. King is an advocate of gender equality and has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice.  King was also the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Regarded by many as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.

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Achieving Greatness from Billie Jean King

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“In fifth grade, Susan Williams, who was sitting next to me, her father had just been transferred to Long Beach. And she was  the smartest person in the class. But she also loved sports. It was a coed school and we ended up playing all sports and sometimes we’d end up being captains even though we were two girls. And one day in class, she looks at me says, “Do you want to play tennis?” And I go, “What’s tennis? Tennis, what’s that? What do you do in tennis?” and she says, “You get to run, jump and hit a ball.” I go, “Those are my three favorite things in sports. I’ll try it.” She belonged to a country club. They were people of wealth. And we went out to a country club and we’re considered from kind of the wrong side of the tracks even though we were fine– we’re lower middle class. We had clothes, shelter, food, the things that really matter in life. We were fine. And we went to the club, but I could see very quickly at this club I wasn’t gonna be able to play tennis. We don’t belong.

My mother had to sew me white shorts and do this because he had to wear all white. And so I hit with Susan and I really had fun. I’m sure I whiffed it a lot. I liked the running and running after the ball and trying to hit it. And then we both played on a softball team at Houghton Park. And we’re at Houghton Park in Valhalla and the coach looked at us because I said, “Susan took me to play tennis.” She said, “Oh, well, every Tuesday they have free instruction here.”  …They have free instruction. Now we’re talking. And so I went home and said, “I want to try. Yeah, I really want to try to play tennis.” My dad says, “Are you sure?” I said, “I really want to.” He says, “Well figure out how you’re gonna pay for your first racket then.” I said, “Dad, are you serious?” And he goes, “Yeah.” So I went around to the neighborhood and they helped create these pseudo-jobs for me so I can make money. And I made $8.29 and put it in a mason jar in the cupboard. And when I had $8.29, I could not wait any longer. I go “Daddy, and Mommy, can we just please I gotta get my racket?” So we went to Browns Sporting Goods. He says, “What would you like?” And I said, “What does $8.29 buy?” He says, “That’s very helpful.” So he took me over to the different rackets and I found one of my favorite colors. It was lavender and I said, “I found my racket” and I slept with it, and I read every tennis book, all three of them that I could find in the library. It’s not like That’s for sure. And I just started to learn the history, because I love history. That was fantastic. So I go out to the public park for my first instruction. And at the end of the day, I said to my mom, I was 11. “Mom, I found out what I’m gonna do with my life, this is it.” And she goes, “That’s fine there but you have homework” and all this and she’s driving home and I go, “Mom, I gotta tell Dad, I gotta tell Randy, come on. Hurry.” I got up and I’m jumping up on the seat, which they didn’t usually allow us to do. You know, just jumping up and bouncing on the seat… I can just remember the sounds I remember the day that clear blue sky. And how excited were the eucalyptus trees at Houghton Park. I remember everything so clearly how excited I was. And I go, “Mom, I’m telling you, this is it.” You know, my mom’s eighty-nine now and sometimes she’ll look at me. She’ll say, “You were so happy. And look, you did do it!” Like she’s so sweet. And I say “Yeah, Mom, I told you. I knew it.” And she says, “I know, you really did.” So I went home and told Dad and that was it. I started going to every park every day.

I’ll give you a good example. Every time the ball comes to me. I have to accept responsibility. I have to make a decision. Then I hit the ball. Let’s say it’s out by six inches. I don’t call that failure. I call it feedback. Okay, taking the information, think about it. Knowing next time I get a similar shot. The thing I love about tennis, and life and movement is that it’s never the same twice in a lifetime. That’s what I love about it. It’s fascinating. So the balls coming back again, I have a similar situation. Now I make the correction. The ball goes in six inches. So I took responsibility. I had to make a quick decision. Am I going to slice it? Or am I going to hook it? Am I going to topspin sidespin? I mean, there are 1000 choices I always picture it like an actor. Okay, they have a scene to play, they can play the scene 1000 different ways the same scene, they have to choose how they’re going to do it. And when you do the theater, it’s live just like when I played.”



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