Celebrating 40 years of World Team Tennis and the first official Philadelphia Freedoms Day, Billie Jean King talks about early-morning visits from Elton John and the Main Line’s proud tennis legacy.
From her game-changing Battle of the Sexes win against Bobby Riggs back in 1973 to her whopping 39 Grand Slam titles, Billie Jean King gives new meaning to the word “icon.” But her connection to Philly is deeper than most people know. As the owner of Mylan World Team Tennis’s Philadelphia Freedoms and the muse for Elton John’s hit song of the same name, King is as much a champion of this city and her local fans as she is a winner on the court. “Billie came to every match last year,” says Josh Cohen, hometown tennis guru and head coach for the Freedoms, whose upcoming season opener is slated for July 16 at The Pavilion in Villanova. “It’s nice for the players to see an icon like her giving it her all, considering she’s won Wimbledon, the French Open, and the US Open. There’s not much she hasn’t done.” Here, King sits down with Philadelphia Style to discuss her crowning achievements, community engagement, and rooting for the Freedoms all summer on the Main Line.
What’s your connection to Philly?
I’ve been coming to Philly since I was 15. I used to come here as a junior player all the time. I’ve played at Merion, on the grass at The Germantown Cricket Club, everywhere. And of course, now I spend a lot of time here because I own the team, and as a business owner I have skin in the game.
What’s your involvement with World Team Tennis (WTT) and the Philadelphia Freedoms?
My former husband, Larry King (not that Larry King), helped form and shape the league back in ’74. I always wanted tennis to be a team sport, but I wanted equality on the court, too. We created that with WTT. Plus, I played for the Freedoms in ’74, and I’ll always remember that first night at the Spectrum. I always dreamt about owning the team. And now I do.
How did Elton John end up writing “Philadelphia Freedom” for you?
I met him in ’73, two weeks before I played the match with Bobby Riggs. Right after we met, I got a message asking to call him, and I almost didn’t call back because I was too shy. But I did, and next thing I know, he shows up at my house in his Rolls-Royce at 4 am and says, “I want to write a song for you.” I told him, “I love ‘The Sound of Philadelphia,’” and he goes, “Done. How about ‘Philadelphia Freedom’?” He calls [his longtime lyricist] Bernie Taupin and says, “Write me some lyrics and fax them over.” He gets them, sits down at the piano, and in 10 minutes he cranked out “Philadelphia Freedom.” It became a number-one hit, and it’s truly the anthem of Philadelphia. And now we easily have the best signature song in all of sports.
How is WTT different than the tennis people are used to?
When you go to a Freedoms match, you see teamwork, you see equality, you see a level playing field. Each team is comprised of two men and two women, and matches consist of five sets, with one set each of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. The team that wins the most overall games is the winner.
Describe the vibe at a WTT match.
We push the sport to be more fan friendly. So any time you see any of those fun elements, just know that without us nothing would have changed. When you go to the US Open and hear music or see the players sign the ball, just know that’s us.
What’s new for this season?
We’re really excited. Marcelo Melo, who was the MVP of the whole league last year, is back. He’s won 13 ATP doubles titles and played Davis Cup for Brazil. We also have Robby Ginepri and Liezel Huber, who was number one in the world for doubles for 199 weeks and won five Grand Slams. And there’s Taylor Townsend. She just turned 19, she was the number-one junior player, and last year she had a win over Venus Williams as our rookie. And although they don’t play for us, we’ll be playing against Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers
Is the team involved in the community?
We’re doing things like helping revitalize Hunting Park via tennis. I was a public court rat growing up—my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a club. We have a Freedoms circuit of 10-and-under kids, and the league has given out more than 350,000 starter racquets. This team represents the community, and we want to be here 365 days a year.
Photography By Ray Moreton/Getty Images