Billie Jean looks back at women pros' lean years

Billie Jean King, the first woman tennis player rich enough to throw soap away immediately after the letters wear off, was holding court in the press room of the Los Angeles Forum.

Part champion, part promoter, and part show biz, Billie Jean was tracing the growth of women's pro tennis over the past 10 years, when sponsorhisp by major companies first began to make tournament prize money big league.

"Years ago I used to fly into a city where one of our tournaments was scheduled, rent a car, and visit all the newspapers, radio stations, and television studios I could find to try to get us some publicity," King said.

"We had so little tradition that when people called the box office about tickets, they never asked the name of the tournament," she continued. "All they wanted to know was if the top two or three women players they had heard or read about were going to be there. Then maybe they'd buy.

Back in 1971 the women pros played the entire year for a total of $400,000 in prize money. This year over $10 million will be divvied up, with more than a thousand women trying to win enough qualifying tournaments to get on the pro circuit.

"Almost every place we play now it isn't a tournament anymore, it's an event, " Billie Jean explained. "Fans who watched us before and liked us are calling and asking when we'll be in their area again. We're getting depth; we've got some great young players coming along; and the same people don't win all the time anymore, which was a problem when we first started.

"The prize money we get today, of course, is fabulous," she continued. "Back in 1971 I had to win 19 tournaments to earn $100,000. Now, if a player is hot, she can make that much in maybe six weeks. In fact, there is at least one tournament going on somewhere every week, where years ago that opportunity wasn't available to young players trying to gain experience. What we've got now is a system that can perpetuate itself."

It is precisely in the area of public relations that King has done some of her greatest work, especially in making so many of the younger players on the tour realize that their responsibility to the game doesn't end once they leave the court.

"When a kid is 15, you can't expect her to have a history of women's tennis -- to know what people of my age had to go through just to get us here," Billie Jean said. "You can't expect them to have a sence of public relations, either, or understand right away how they fit into our scheme of things."

"But they do have a responsibility to talk to the press, to go on television, to make themselves available for things that are going to help the game," she continued. "It used to drive me crazy when I'd watch Tracy Austin being interviewed on TV and give nothing but yes-and-no answers. But with a little help, Tracy has learned how to act in front of a camera."

Asked about last year's tennis rankings, which placed Chris Evert Llyod No. 1 and Martina Navratilova No. 2, King replied: "Well, I think it was a case where Chris got most of the publicity, but Navratilova actually won more tournaments.

"When Martina, who is left-handed, is getting her first serve in she has a tremendous advantage against anyone who is right-handed, because her serve will pull them right off the court. It's the same reason why John McEnroe gives Bjorn Borg so much trouble."

And what about the future of 15-year- old Andrea Jaeger, who has already beaten most of the top players on the women's tour at least once?

"My feelings about Andrea are the same as they would be about any 15-year- old," King replied. "She is a tremendously fifted young player, but kids sometimes change and will she still want to pay the price at 17? I don't know. But there have been kids in the past who didn't think the hundreds of hours of practice were worth it."

Billie Jean, who has a history of knee problem, is practicing five hours a day at Newport Beach, Calif., under former Australian Davis Cupper Roy Emerson.

"I'm trying to get back where I was," she said. "I'm even working on a hydraulic machine, which is like lifting weights, and I hate it. Some mornings when I get out of bed, I want to get right back in. I've had to go to a harder-hitting game, with more penetration, because of all the younger players on the tour, and I've lost some quickness.

"One of the things Alice Marble taught me when I was 15 was that the difference between champion and a runner-up is that the champion is able to raise her game to a higher level when the situation calls for it. Invariably she'll wipe you out with some unbelievable shot."

King's first Los Angeles appearance of 1981 will be at the $150,000 Avon Tennis Championships, March 2-8, at the Forum.

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