I read in a recent Mike Lupica column that Billie Jean King still enjoys hitting tennis balls.
Apparently she no longer hits tennis balls competitively. She told Mike Lupika, “I’ve had that.”
She certainly has. She won the singles title at Wimbledon in ’66, ’67, ’68, ’72, ’73 and ’75. She won six additional Grand Slam singles titles elsewhere, and 129 singles tournaments altogether. I’d tell you about her doubles championships, too, but I got tired of counting. Suffice it to say she won her first doubles championship at Wimbledon in 1961. She was not yet 18.
And she still likes to hit tennis balls.
So Billie Jean King is apparently the antithesis of a burnout, which is a player who hits so many tennis balls as a kid that by the time she is 25, she would rather change a tire in the rain than pick up a racquet.
My guess is that Mike Lupica was talking to Billie Jean King last week because the movie based on King’s most famous tennis match opened in London last Sunday. That 1973 match featured a middle-aged hustler named Bobby Riggs, who’d been good enough to win at Wimbledon himself almost 50 years earlier, and, of course, King, who was the No. 1 female player in the world. In the movie, Billie Jean is played by Emma Stone.
Anyway, the match was at once silly and significant.
It was silly because both Riggs and King went along with a pre-match show that involved female models and sedan chairs, and because Bobby Riggs said he was going to win because he ate about 11,000 vitamin pills a day.
It was significant because numbers of people, King included, chose to invest the contest with great importance.
Riggs, who was in it for the money and the publicity, had said even a beat-up old male player could beat the best female players.
As Billie Jean King has been saying for over 40 years, she felt she had to accept the challenge Riggs threw down because he’d beaten Margaret Court, also a grand slam champion, and King couldn’t let it go at that.
Court had choked.
King was determined that she would not. And she didn’t. She beat the bedraggled Riggs in straight sets.
So now, perhaps on an evening after a day when she has hit tennis balls for a while, just for the joy of feeling the racquet meet the ball, she has watched that movie based on her triumph over Bobby Riggs.
I wonder if Billie Jean King enjoys the idea that Emma Stone played her in a movie as much as she still enjoys hitting tennis balls?
No knock on Emma Stone meant, but I’m guessing maybe not.