Billie Jean King lives in Chicago, travels the world and always comes home. At least figuratively.
Wherever she is in body, Long Beach, Ca., is where she is in her mind, where she has never left.
Long Beach is her anchor, her foundation, her happy place.
You can live a life of athletic success and superstar adulation and simply be “from somewhere,”
from a place that is merely a listing in a biography or Wikipedia. Or you can be Billie Jean King, who lived
that life of athletic success and superstar adulation and can’t wait, in the first 10 seconds of any
interview or any sit-down chat over a cup of coffee, to tell you about Long Beach.
It was where she discovered that tennis was the sport for her, where a friend asked her if she
wanted to go play tennis and she replied, “What’s tennis?”
She has told the story thousands of times and may be aiming for a million. Her friend was Susan
Williams and the question led to a tennis lesson with a Long Beach City Parks instructor named Clyde
Walker. All too often, people who soar to great heights recall little of the people who formed and guided
them at the beginning. King not only recalls, she canonizes.
“I love Clyde Walker,” she says now, and not for the first time.
“He taught at a different city park every day. I kept showing up at every new park. He’d say, ‘You
here, again?’ Then he’d let me play and show me how and drive me home.”
For most people, lifetime goals grow slowly over long periods of time. King took about a day.
“After the second lesson,” she says, “I told my mom I was going to be No. 1 in the world in tennis.”
She was a few days from turning 11 at the time. That was 1955. She didn’t dally.
By 1961, she had won a Wimbledon doubles title, by ’62 a spot in a Wimbledon singles semifinal,
and by ’66 a coveted Wimbledon singles title, one of her eventual six. In 1967, she was ranked No. 1 for
the first time. That was just 12 years after she had made her prediction to her mother, saved up the
$8.29 she needed to get her first tennis racket–a purple beauty in homage to her favorite color–and
learned that the greatest places in the world were not necessarily the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids or
the Great Barrier Reef, but places such as Houghton, El Dorado and Recreation Parks in Long Beach.
“Those are the places where I fell in love with tennis,” she says. “When I played softball, I was a
shortstop and I loved it. But you only got the ball a couple of times, and you only got to bat a couple of
times. In tennis, you hit it all the time, and you have to run and stop and run some more. I loved that. I
couldn’t get enough of tennis.”
Now, tennis in particular and the world in general, can’t get enough of King. She is in every tennis
Hall of Fame that matters. She gave the sport World Team Tennis and now she owns one of the teams.
They recently made another movie about her 1973 Battle of the Sexes victory over Bobby Riggs that
many theorize was the exact nudge the cause of feminism needed at that point in our country. She is on
foundation boards, in business boardrooms and open to any broadcast booth or newspaper interview
that might push forward the cause of tennis, feminism or human rights in general. No surprise that she
was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom.
Oh yes, and guess what they call the facility where they hold our largest annual event in the sport, the
U.S. Open? The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. There is also a tennis center named after her at
Recreation Park in Long Beach. She might be just as proud of that one.
Starting Wednesday, they will play the largest tennis event in Southern California, the annual BNP
Paribas at Indian Wells in the Palm Springs Desert. It is generally considered the fifth most-prestigious
tennis event in the world, after the four Grand Slams.
Billie Jean King will be there for a couple of days. There are meetings and parties. If you see her and
she seems even more bubbly than usual, it might be because she is so close to home—and we aren’t
talking about Chicago.
Old friends will stop by to say hello. The Southern California tennis community knows its icons. The
name Clyde Walker will pop up. King will seize the opportunity to remind everybody that, although
Walker died in 1961, he hung on long enough to find out that he had created a Wimbledon champion,
that King and her partner, Karen Hantze Susman, had won the women’s doubles title that year. King was
17, Hantze-Susman 18.
“It does take a village,” King says. “People do have to champion you for you to make it.”
Back home in Long Beach, they did that for a pig-tailed tomboy named Billie Jean. And she’s never
USTA Southern California is honored to feature the musings of renowned sports columnist Bill Dwyre for USTAsocal.com during the BNP Paribas Open, which he has covered in depth since 1982. Be sure to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to follow Dwyre’s reflections, as well as all things Indian Wells, as the BNP Paribas Open kicks off on March 3.