PHILADELPHIA — Venus Williams was just a kid at a World TeamTennis clinic the first time she tried to impress Billie Jean King. Years before she hit No. 1 in the world, Williams tried to show off in front of her tennis idol.
“When it was my turn to hit, I was just like confident and strong,” Williams said, laughing. “Bam! I was like, `Yeah, she saw that.”‘
King, a six-time Wimbledon champion, was instantly struck by Williams’ power and bravado.
“It was adorable,” she said.
Williams once just wanted to play tennis and win tournaments, and she became one of the greats along the way. She soon pined to follow King in more ways than the record book. The 39-year-old Williams was inspired by King’s legacy of championing equal rights and equal pay for women in the sport. A day before playing in the 2005 Wimbledon final, Williams addressed a meeting of the Grand Slam Board, urging Wimbledon and the French Open to offer equal pay to male and female players. All four majors have eliminated the pay gap.
“Sometimes you start somewhere and you end somewhere else you hadn’t planned on,” Williams said.
King and Williams sat on a panel of women in sports Friday night that included representatives from the Philadelphia Flyers and Sacramento Kings. Williams was in Philadelphia to play for WTT franchise the Washington Kastles and packed a crowd of about 2,000 fans into Saint Joseph’s Hagan Fieldhouse.
She had an easy time in the breezy world of team tennis, winning her singles match 5-2 against Taylor Townsend of the Philadelphia Freedoms . In her last match that counted, Williams was upset at Wimbledon by 15-year-old Coco Gauff . Williams declined through representatives to answer questions about the loss, wanting instead to keep the focus on team tennis.
Little sister Serena Williams reached the Wimbledon final and lost in straight sets to Simona Halep. King had said she would like to see what Williams could do on the court if she were to put “everything else aside” and “focus on what’s necessary” for her tennis. While some reports sensationalized a spat between them, King said all was cool with Williams and they had texted after Wimbledon.
“She said, `Billie, I know (a reporter) misinterpreted you. I love you. I appreciate you,”‘ King said. “She’s always been great. She brings up my name all the time.”
King’s connection to Philadelphia stretches to her teenage years when she won the 1960 Philadelphia and District Grass Court Championships, and her WTT career in Philadelphia inspired the title to Elton John’s hit “Philadelphia Freedom.” King said she was 13 when she knew “she wanted to change things” in the world and is proud to see a star player in Venus help get women equal prize money in the majors. King just isn’t the type to recruit the next generation of stars – like a Gauff – to join in the fight for causes close to her heart.
“I’m shy in some ways, I am,” King said. “I don’t want to go up to them that much. I don’t want to get in their space. I don’t know them.”
Perhaps, but it’s impossible to imagine a girl that picks up a racket who doesn’t know about King.
“I have a job because of this woman,” Williams said.
The 75-year-old King looks at the Williams sisters as among those who can carry on the work she started decades ago.
“You never know how you’re going to touch another person’s life or how they’re going to touch yours,” King said.