Billie Jean King officially becomes a Hall of Famer tomorrow - and a strong case can be made that no one will ever deserve the honor more. For her performance on the tennis court alone, King's credentials are impeccable: six Wimbledon singles championships and a record 20 there altogether, including doubles and mixed doubles crowns, four US Open titles, five times ranked No. 1 in the world, etc.
But her playing skill is only one aspect of Billie Jean's multifaceted career - and arguably not even the most important one. As the driving force behind the tremendous strides made by women in tennis and other sports, she stands out as one of the most important figures of our time in the fight for equal opportunity.
Still another significant quality in terms of this particular honor is the respect she has always shown for the history and traditions of her game - something that is sadly lacking in too many of today's athletes.
``As a youngster in the '50s, I used to keep a scrapbook of all the players - Shirley Fry, Doris Hart, Althea Gibson, Maria Bueno,'' she said in a recent, wide-ranging interview. ``I never got enough of the history as a child. I always felt there wasn't enough on tennis.
``The Hall of Fame is important that way - to provide a sense of history and to get people aware of players and times and places. Tennis is a sport with an unbelievably rich history, and yet it isn't as well known as it should be. So it's important to make the statement. Each generation does matter. Each builds for the next.
``But today's kids don't realize that,'' she continued. ``Let's face it, the frame of reference is `What did I read in the paper this morning?' By the time something's five hours old, it's history. But I think it is important that they see the other side. A lot of time and energy has gone into the game over the years, and it's up to my generation to give youngsters that sense.''
The Newport Casino, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame (where King will be inducted tomorrow along with Bjorn Borg, Dennis Ralston, Alex Olmedo, and Stan Smith), and also the site of many great tournaments through the years, is of course a big part of the game's history.
``Every time I step on those courts, I think about the players who were there before - the clothes they wore, what they thought,'' King said. ``I think of all the great shots that have been made - and hope there are still some there for me. I love that stuff - the drama, the history.''
Billie Jean, of course, has made a lot of that history all over the world during an illustrious career spanning more than two decades. In addition to Wimbledon titles in 1966, '67, '68, '72, '73, and '75 and US Open crowns in '67, '71, '72, and '74, she also won the Australian, French, Italian, and German Opens, five US Indoor titles, and an incredible array of doubles and mixed doubles championships.
She knows what it takes to be a champion - and two of the most important things in her view are intensity and the willingness to accept a challenge.
``It's that intensity that sets the top players apart,'' King said. ``I wish youngsters could watch them work out. Players like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova reach a level of intensity others just don't have - and can't seem to come up with.''
As for being willing to take responsibility and accept challenges, Billie Jean alluded first to a conversation she once had with a famous pro basketball coach.
``He said that in the really tight spots, only a couple of the guys wanted the ball,'' she recalled. ``The others were looking around, looking away. But you have to take that responsibility, you have to want the ball.''
And the same lesson applies to tennis.
``Ask yourself whether you want the responsibility,'' she said. ``In tight spots are you saying, `Please, let her double-fault,' or `Give me your best serve, I'm gonna return it. Let me have a chance to return it!'''
Even at the height of her playing career, of course, King waged some of her biggest battles off the court - particularly in the area of raising the women's game to the same level as the men's in terms of money and prestige. Now that this battle has been pretty much won, is she seeking new worlds to conquer - perhaps establishing more women in areas like sports management and journalism?
``Not necessarily women,'' she said, ``just people who are aware. I don't care about gender; I care about awareness. Basically, it's all a question of information. Get the information out, then let people make their own decisions about what they want to watch. We want people to make their own decisions, but they have to have the information.''
She also emphasizes that in the ongoing quest for women's rights she has never advocated preferential treatment.
``We only seek equal opportunity,'' she says. ``We're not asking for anything. We have to earn it.''
How would she like to be remembered?
``I know what they do remember - Bobby Riggs,'' she said, referring to their famous 1973 ``Battle of the Sexes'' in the Houston Astrodome.
But she said her own preference would be to be remembered for such things as her efforts to help open the big tournaments to professionals in 1968; her contributions toward getting the women's pro circuit off the ground; her long involvement with team tennis; and her help in forming the Women's Sports Foundation.
``As for playing, hitting the ball, I love it,'' she said. ``I still get that feeling. But winning a title is very temporary. You're glad you finally did it, and you're relieved. But these other things are lasting, or can be if they are handled right.
``I feel my election says I contributed something to the sport - and hopefully I'll still be able to help in the future.''