Superstar emeritus of women's tennis now on business side of net

Billie Jean King as business woman? The Lee Iacocca of tennis? ``I've always been in business,'' says the woman who paved the way for professional female athletes. ``I have been ever since I was out on the circuit.''

When you think of King, you think of her with racket in hand, pounding away at opponents, gathering armloads of titles, triumphing over self-avowed male-chauvinist-in-tennis-shorts Bobby Riggs. But a dress and pearls? A briefcase? What's going on here?

After years of establishing herself in the corporate world of sports ``by the seat of my pants,'' she is comfortable talking the lingo of business. King now moves in the wider circles of promotion for the Virginia Slims circuit. Based in Chicago, she also serves as commissioner for Domino's Pizza Team Tennis. During a recent swing through Boston, the former monarch of the women's game came across as an aggressive promoter, a fitness crusader, and a whirling dynamo of energy.

King still loves to travel, and her tight schedule of appearances and endorsements has forced her to eat more airline food than she cares to discuss. It's tough for the 44-year-old former world-class athlete to find herself out of condition, and King is candid about her intentions to lose weight so she can play again.

She is a commanding figure, with strong, stubby fingers that she uses to emphasize her points. Her face, framed by a pair of red glasses, flashes instantly from enthusiasm to impatience to amusement. She charges into a conversation like a wild mustang, scattering sentences everywhere. But at the same time, King is an engaging person, and it's easy to be awed by her raw energy. To ask her a question is to plug her in and watch her go.

King may talk in corporate terms a lot these days, but she still relishes talking with athletes and people who love sports. One of her favorite tasks is briefing the tennis Wunderkinder who are starting out on the circuit. It's an indoctrination of sorts, and Billie Jean takes it seriously. She tries to arm them to deal with fans, media, sponsors, promoters, and particularly, themselves.

The media attention is ``very good for them,'' she says. ``It's a way for them to promote themselves and their sport.''

She is quick to point out that these young players take for granted everything but their own physical prowess. They have no idea who arranges the transportation from the hotel to the tournament, who hangs all those banners, or how corporations put up the money that makes their play possible.

``If you take the check, you have to know something of the business - how it runs, what the difference is between a sponsor and a promoter,'' King says, shaking her head. She warns the players that professional sports is always a gamble, and that they should stay in school as long as they possibly can. She also advises them to have Plan B and C if they fail to make it in tennis.

Things have changed considerably since King's first road trip to a junior tournament at age 14. ``I was lucky if I got [to play in] 10 tournaments a year. Now the kids go, `When can I take a rest?' They make tons of money. The players that came later are richer than I am. They may not go as far, but it doesn't matter. They have [financial] security.''

Her unequivocal advice for today's 15-year-olds? ``Unless they're in the top 10, they should stay in school.''

King considers universities the training ground for women and men athletes, especially now that women are receiving athletic scholarships.

She would like to see grade schools and high schools emphasize equal sports opportunities, the most important of which, King says, is the integration of the sexes in team sports. This would carry over into cooperation between the sexes in business and professional sports.

``In the Olympics, why not Carl Lewis passing off [the relay baton] to Flo Jo [Florence Griffith Joyner]? In life, everything is boys and girls. That's the way it's really set up. You have to communicate, and yet we separate boys and girls and then we wonder why they have trouble communicating - they never had the same experiences.''

King, warming up to her favorite topic, continues, ``We need to change the socialization process. You need to start networking by people, not by gender. The way you do that is by a bonding experience. When you're on a team together there's always that special feeling.''

But what about the argument that women are physiologically different from men? King thumps her hand down on the table impatiently. ``It's really simple. Your body size determines what sports you can do. If you're a boy and you weigh 150 pounds, you're not going to play football; you might become a gymnast.''

It's no wonder that King has spent the last three years promoting co-ed team tennis, a concept that was introduced in the '70s and in its latest reincarnation is played by eight franchises. It's been a rocky road, but King plans to dedicate her efforts toward the integration of women and men in sports, and sees team tennis as the vehicle for starting the process.

There's a long road ahead of her, but she has made a career out of twisting challenges into opportunities. She says she wouldn't have it any other way. ``Ideas thrill me, creating opportunities and things that are going to last a long time. I want each generation to get better.''

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