Commentary

Billie Jean King proud of league

Updated: July 16, 2013, 12:38 AM ET
By Bob McGovern | Special to ESPNBoston.com

MANCHESTER, Mass. -- Billie Jean King sat in the Manchester Athletic Club's foyer and stared off in the distance as she fiddled with her glasses. The 39-time Grand Slam champion reflected on the past, spoke about the present and confidently projected the future.

On hand for the Boston Lobsters' Mylan World TeamTennis match against the Washington Kastles at the Joan Norton Tennis Center, King spoke glowingly about the league she started back in the 1970s.

"I must say, of all the things I did in my life, this will be one of my greatest contributions," King said.

Mark Philippoussis showcased his legendary power serve for the Lobsters, and five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis ran the baselines for the Washington Kastles in front of a sellout crowd of 1,740 -- the first of the season for the Lobsters. The Kastles won the match, 23-18.

[+] EnlargeMartina Hingis
Karen Draymore/Boston LobstersMartina Hingis, who helped Washington beat the Lobsters, recognized the impact Billie Jean King has had on tennis.

King is pleased with the current state of the eight-team league, which features some of the more recognizable names in tennis. She indicated that revenues are up and more sponsors are buying into the product.

However, she wants much more, admitting "I'm a typical perfectionist that really wants to make things better."

Part of the strategy is getting younger players involved. Back in May, World TeamTennis announced that Andy Roddick and Venus Williams would join King and four others as part owners of the league.

"We want to start getting younger players involved with the league because I'm going to be 70 this year, and I've been thinking for the past 10 years who to identify. I've been thinking about it a lot," King said. "We asked (Andy) Roddick, and we asked Venus (Williams), and they both said yes right away. ... I want them to shape the future because they're the young ones. They're the ones who know what's going on with the younger folks and can shape this league's future."

King added that WTT has an aggressive 10-year growth plan where it is looking to add another eight teams. She said the league also is open to the idea of moving current teams to different markets "if it helps them and enhances the situation." Recently, the Kansas City Explorers moved to Irving, Texas because "it's a bigger market."

When discussing the Boston Lobsters and having a team in Massachusetts, King reminisced about her playing days at the Essex County Club back when she was 17.

"When we drove in, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I've been here before,'" she said.

She praised the Lobsters' new facilities and said there is a good deal of local interest in tennis. King added that Bahar Uttam, chief executive officer of the Lobsters, has been great for the league.

"This facility is just amazing. They have a new court and everything," she said. "It's also a beautiful area, and a lot of people in this area show up and love tennis. This is also a great place for the kids if they want to make it. They don't have to go down to Florida."

King said that the fast pace of World TeamTennis tends to keep fans engaged and the financial incentives for the players ensures that the level of play remains high. Each player is paid based on the number of games he or she wins during the course of the season, so "no matter what's going on in the match, you have to suck it up and play your best," she said.

She added that having men and women play together is a good lesson for younger fans.

"Everything is about the fans. There are a ton of critical points. Also, there are contributions from both genders equally," King said. "So when you get a little 8-year-old girl out here, they're going through a socialization process that they don't realize. They're watching men and women working together and cooperating, which is how things are in real life. It's very rare to have men and women on the same team in pro sports, so it's great that we have it."

King's influence on World TeamTennis and the sport of tennis generally is not lost on those who still lace them up.

Hingis was quick to mention how much King has meant for women tennis players. She pointed to the "Battle of the Sexes," a match where King defeated Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised event in 1973.

"It's incredible what she's done in her lifetime," Hingis said. "Growing up, I knew about Billy Jean, but if you actually watch the Battle of the Sexes, you realize that it was huge. After that, a lot of things changed in the sport, and we can profit from that."

Lobsters coach Bud Schultz also expressed his thanks for all King has done for the league and the game.

"She's an American icon, and she's an icon within the sport," he said. "She has created this thing where men and women can play together and against each other, and I think it's a compelling athletic event to watch because of that. I've known her for a long time, and I've never met someone who is so consistently positive and bright."

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