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USTA MEDIA CONFERENCE
August 3, 2006
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today for this very special announcement.
We have three principals with me right now. We have the Chief Executive of Professional Tennis for the USTA, Arlen Kantarian. We have the USTA Chairman of the Board and President, Franklin Johnson. And our very special guest, I'm honored to be here with, Billie Jean King.
I'm going to turn it over to Arlen Kantarian who is going to give a brief intro on what has happened. He'll be followed by Franklin, Billie Jean, and then we'll do a Q&A.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: Thanks all for being here. I'm going to turn it over very quickly for a special announcement from Franklin Johnson.
As you all know, the US Open is right around the corner. We expect to have over 650,000 people here at the National Tennis Center. I think you also know that the National Tennis Center is the single largest public park in the world with over 60,000 people playing here on the courts from morning until midnight.
I also think you know that our special guest here is also a product of the public parks, and that is what brings us here today for a special announcement.
I am going to turn it over to our USTA Chairman of the Board, Franklin Johnson.
FRANKLIN JOHNSON: Thanks, Arlen. I'm very honored to announce that at the Opening Day of the US Open, we will officially rename our tennis center here the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
This is, I think, an important action of the USTA. It was something that was voted on unanimously by our Board. I think that we determined that Billie Jean King was someone that is just highly deserving of being recognized here at the tennis center, and we wanted something fitting and suitable for all of her outstanding achievements not only in tennis but for women and women's sports.
Without further ado, Billie Jean King, anything you'd like to say at this point?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, I'm still in shock, and I think it's going to take three years, but I would like to thank Arlen and of course Franklin Johnson, our President and leader of our USTA right now. Because Franklin came from the public parks, it means a lot to me that this is happening under your leadership. I really appreciate that.
Obviously, to the entire Board and to Mayor Dinkins and everyone that's on the Board, I really want to thank them. To Jane Brown. It's a big day.
I know when Franklin called me on the phone to tell me, I was in shock. I didn't think I heard him right because I was at a Team Tennis match in Philadelphia, so I had him repeat it. I still am in shock.
It's a great day for public parks. Of course we play in the Flushing Meadows Corona Park here, which has over 46 acres. It's huge. It has 65 tennis courts.
As a product of the public parks, I am so honored, and I am very honored to be next to Arthur Ashe and to Louis Armstrong, and of course that means a lot to me. But Arthur and I were born the same year, 1943, so we got to know each other a lot, especially when we worked at HBO the last 11, 14 years of his life - I think it was about 11 years. We talked about all the things that we wanted to happen for our sport, but also for human rights and for everyone.
So this means so much to me, and I hope it will be a beacon of hope. I hope that people will think about dreaming big and going for it throughout the world.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you, Billie Jean. At this point, we'd like to open it up to the questions, please.
Q. Well, Billie Jean, I mean, this is a very serious undertaking. You are now a public park. Do you have to go around picking up trash and stuff like that?
BILLIE JEAN KING: That's okay, I can do that.
Q. I hope you'll be there at the door to greet everybody who comes in on that first Monday.
BILLIE JEAN KING: That would be great. I'm sure Arlen Kantarian will love that idea (laughter). You're going to have to have the paramedics ready.
Thank you, Bud. Thank you, Bud.
I just want to say Bud [Collins] is one of the reasons I'm here, having this name. He's touched my life for many, many years. He's been so great to tennis.
The first thing I thought about when Franklin told me was all the people that helped me along the way. Actually, all of you in the media are part of it, too, because you've been so good to me and allowed my thoughts and feelings to be heard and also even my image. And all of us, every athlete has to remember without the media, we are nothing, because you do tell everyone what we feel, think, and what we even look like.
I'm just telling you, I appreciate it. You're a lot of the reason my name's on this.
Q. What kind of programs will be created at the Billie Jean King Center? What plans do you have in mind?
BILLIE JEAN KING: We don't have any plans. I've already talked to Franklin and a lot of the Board people. I just found out, you know. It isn't like I found out a long time ago to have these thoughts.
Right now it's going to take me years to even realize my name's on this. But I did talk to Arlen and to Franklin and everybody that hopefully this will have an echoing effect. We're going to be thinking about it, what we can do. It is tangible. There is a focus. I think it's great that a woman's name is on something this special, and I think it will send out a great message.
I think that we already have great programs here at the National Tennis Center and we'll continue to do so. I know we're looking forward to a new indoor place. I mean, there's all kinds of things happening here, having a lot of things held. The National Public Parks were just held here a couple weeks ago. We have kids here, we have over 60,000 people coming through. That's going to obviously increase as time goes on. This really sends out a message to the world to dream big and go for it for everybody, I think girls and boys. For equality, as well, for men and women, which has been my fight to have equal opportunity for boys and girls. That's really what I'm about.
Q. Can you discuss a little bit more the kinship, you with Arthur, you both won the 1975 singles title at Wimbledon. What does it mean having both your names on the building?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, it's great to be side by side with Arthur. In 1975 we did the first dance at the ball. We both had Afros - his was real; mine was a perm. But he and I were laughing so hard there because I said, Arthur, we have the same hairstyle.
I always remember that dance and having fun, and that great win he had over Connors. I was there. Actually, I watched that whole match in the finals. He and I, over the years, got to know each other really well, and I must say Jeanie Ashe was a big part of that. Of course when Camera came around, that sent him over the moon really thinking about girls' and women's issues.
Q. I had read on the Internet today that one of your first responses was that you wished your dad were alive to hear of this honor. My question is, could you just tell us a bit about him, if you don't mind.
BILLIE JEAN KING: My daddy? Yeah, I called him "daddy boy" the last few years, I don't know why. I always called him "daddy" when things were good and "father" when I was upset with him (laughing). It was very interesting. I guess I showed more respect knowing I was in trouble, wouldn't even go there.
But my dad understood my dreams from day one. My poor dad. When my brother and I were born, my mother said we never stopped moving and all we cared about was a ball, you know, Where's the ball. My dad played. He was a firefighter and he used to be home every other day. He would play catch. I mean, I played catch by the hour. This man was one of the most patient men when it came to children. He understood. He understood how much I loved to play sports and to have fun.
You know, my dad or my mother never really pushed my brother or I. When Randy said he wanted to be a Major League baseball player and I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player, until the day my dad died, he was scratching his head, Why, and my mother still is. She was here today.
My parents never came to the US Open. It's great that my mom -- but my dad understood my dreams. He got it because he played basketball. He didn't miss a free throw, in high school when he played basketball, in three years. He was good in track and field. He just had that extra spark. I used to go watch him play night league when he played for the fire, when he was in his 40s. He never gave up. He was tenacious. Both my parents are very much the same that way. I think it spilled over to Randy and me to have fun, but always do the best we can. They never cared if we won or lost, as long as we tried our best.
Q. Years ago there was a guy in southern California who ran the scene, Juniors and the regular tennis scene. He ran it with a real strong hand.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Who? Perry T. Jones, you mean? The czar in those days?
Q. My question is one day he said, Hey, this little kid Billie Jean who was in shorts couldn't be in the group picture because of the shorts.
BILLIE JEAN KING: That's true. The first day I played a sanctioned tournament. And my mother sewed those shorts for me.
Q. Up in Heaven, what do you think Perry would be thinking now, now that the United States Tennis Center is named after that little kid in shorts?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I think, well, you know, one thing about Mr. Jones, he had plus and minuses, and that was one of his minuses. Some of his pluses were that in '61 when he used to go to Wimbledon, you either had to play the Juniors if you were still a junior, or in women's, and he told me to play the women's and not play the Juniors that year. I always try to kind of think about that.
But the day, the "Shorts Day" I call it, the day of the shorts, my mother was horrified. She thought she didn't have me in the right uniform. We came from lawn tennis so it was uniform. We came from team sports as a child. Secondly, she was mortified that secondly I said to her, Don't worry, mom, don't worry about it, he'll be sorry some day.
So I hope he's happy, though, because he and I did get along all right at the end. He was tough. He did favor the boys. He only gave the boys money and no money to the girls. That was a tough time for the girls in junior tennis in southern California. Obviously, that is not the case today with the Southern California Tennis Association. That has been corrected. I just want that to be on the record.
Q. Yeah, sure. I just wanted to follow up. If Bobby Riggs had really trained for your match with him as if he were climbing Mount Everest and if you banged your knee on the refrigerator the night before, or for whatever reason, if Bobby Riggs, the chauvinist, the --
BILLIE JEAN KING: He actually did train even though everyone was trying to make it out like he wasn't. I had my spies.
Q. Okay. All right. But bottom line, for whatever reason, if Riggs had won that match, in that context, in that day, how do you think that would have affected women's sports and culture in America?
BILLIE JEAN KING: It wouldn't have helped. It was more about bringing -- actually, it's funny. The Battle of the Sexes brought men and women together more, I thought, after people calmed down and thought about it. That's really my purpose in life, is equal opportunity for boys and girls, not just women. Women have been underserved, is the reason I emphasize women so much. If we had been equal...
But he didn't win, so I thank God every day when I wake up that, first of all, I'm alive and, secondly, thank you for letting me win that match.
But I think it did help change the minds and hearts of people about thinking about maybe girls and women a little differently. And particularly the men, when they were young, that watched that, I call them the first generation of men of the women's movement. These men come up to me every single day of the year and thank me for that match, because now they have daughters and they raise their daughters and sons very differently than they would have if they had not seen that match.
So both men and women were highly affected. We're both in this world together. I think it helped Title IX as far as changing the minds and hearts. Minds and hearts always take longer than legislation.
Q. I just had a follow-up. Why did your parents never come to the US Open?
BILLIE JEAN KING: They don't like to travel and they're homebodies and they had a very structured life. If I would call, they would just say how did I feel, did I try my best, are you doing okay, honey. They just really did not live through my brother and me, which I could tell you was such a pleasure. Sampras had the same experience, you know. His family finally came to Wimbledon. He had to beg them to come, you know, for his seventh victory.
Pete and I have talked about how our parents are so much alike that way, they just let us be and let us play and not put pressure on us, but were very supportive in the background. My mother and my dad found a way to get me to tournaments, along with Susan Williams and Jerry Cromwell's parents. It absolutely was very difficult to get me to sanctioned tournaments. I'm very indebted to Susan and Jerry's parents and to them and to my mom and dad for that, because they always found us a way. We had a sanctioned tournament every weekend in southern California. I swear, I played five events every weekend. I played my own age group, I played up, I played singles, doubles and mixed. I absolutely could not get enough tennis. Our parents somehow found a way to get us to these sanctioned tournaments so we could have rankings and further our dreams.
Q. And what was your mother's reaction?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Today?
BILLIE JEAN KING: She's been crying and she's thrilled. I know she wishes my dad could be here.
Q. I'm sure you've heard John McEnroe speak about his desire to have an academy at your tennis center now.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Oh, thank you (laughing). You thought of it that way. The "House that Billie Built" instead of Babe. That's so funny.
I think it would be great. I've talked to John and Patrick about it. I think it would be great if the McEnroes were involved. John has been adamant. I just talked to John at a Team Tennis match the other night, and he and I were talking about it. I think it would be great. I've talked to Arlen about it for quite a long time, and to Franklin and to different Board members.
Any time we can get the McEnroes, especially in New York, I think it's a no-brainer. Anything we can do to get the kids around winners, I think, No. 1s. I was around Alice Marble as a child and she was No. 1. That was a very huge turning point for me. I think when young people are around winners, they learn how to win. I think it spills over on to others.
Q. Okay. Terrific. I was wondering if the new initiative with the Evert center, if McEnroe's idea would be seen in conflict in any way?
BILLIE JEAN KING: No, no, no, no, no. This is all teamwork. Having different areas of the country, having Chris in Florida where she's such a great icon there and obviously throughout the world internationally and won more US Opens I think than anybody else. No, no, this is a real teamwork.
I tell you, the past champions, we are all in this together now. We're not happy unless we're winning. We've got the McEnroes, you've got Evert, you've got Connors, you've got all of us who are talking about it. We care about our sport. We want to help our sport in any way we can. The more players, they have Chris Evert, they have the McEnroes, Jimmy Connors, they have everybody. We've got the west coast to look at, too, we've got Agassi. We've got everybody. I mean, we want to put our time and effort back into our sport that we love so much and that has done so much for all of us.
FRANKLIN JOHNSON: I just wanted to add to what Billie Jean said. We do contemplate some discussions up ahead with John McEnroe regarding our facility in New York, but we are very much of a mind to try to bring back, as Billie Jean has said, our past champions to work with our young --
BILLIE JEAN KING: Tracy Austin. I mean, every one of us.
FRANKLIN JOHNSON: But we will be having some discussions with John regarding New York. Our new indoor building will not be finished until 2008, but we will be having in the near term some discussions with John about perhaps some more formal relationship. We will always be inviting John and the other past champions to come and work with our young, emerging talent.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Also don't forget Patrick, our Davis Cup. You've got Zina Garrison, our Fed Cup. We're all in this together now. We're going to try to make it work. Thanks to Franklin's leadership and to Arlen and the Board and everybody in the trenches, the teaching pros, everybody. We're going to make this work.
Q. I remember when the stadium was named for Arthur. At that time he was talking very much about grass roots tennis and finding the next American champions in the inner cities. It seems like over the years we don't hear as much about that discussion. Is that something that --
BILLIE JEAN KING: That's a discussion always on the front burner, I can tell you, among all of us. The inner city has got its own set of challenges, but we never stop thinking about the grass roots. In fact, this year was the first time we had a million new people in the game, and our attrition has gone down, which is huge. I think Franklin is really excited about that. That's going to be part of his legacy that he's left when he leaves.
So I think if you look at the public parks, we're trying to, you know -- this isn't a public park. We're trying to really get the public parks, the inner cities.
But you know what? Sampras' father said something very funny. He just whispered in my ear the other night. He goes, You know, champions are born. I thought, we just got to find the ones who are born to be champions.
Q. The New York Times' story today made mention of the fact that the USTA passed up probably a good deal of potential money for naming rights in giving you this honor. I know you're a dreamer, I know you're also a pragmatist. I was wondering if you would speak a little bit about the value, the symbolic value, of having the center named after you as opposed to the dollars that the USTA could have put into its treasury potentially.
BILLIE JEAN KING: You know what, I think I should pass the baton and let Arlen answer it. He and the Board and everybody discussed that. I really wasn't privy to that.
Or to Franklin maybe. Either one, whatever.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: I think they want to know how you feel about it.
BILLIE JEAN KING: I will in a minute. But background.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: Certainly, it's obvious that this is not your typical naming deal. It's also obvious that Billie Jean King is not your typical champion. I think that's what went through our mind immediately. I think in this day and age of corporate naming rights on venues, this remains a clear signal that not everything is for sale. This was not about the money; this was about doing what was right. As Franklin mentioned up top, it almost became a no-brainer once he mentioned it to our Board.
Q. Billie Jean, I just wondered how you felt about the symbolism. I mean, I've been racking my brains for any other facility I've been to to cover an elite sporting event that's been named after a woman.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Have you come up with any? I haven't come up with (indiscernible) shooting match. I'm in shock.
Q. What is it worth, if you could put that into words?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I don't know. I know it's tangible. I know there's a focus now. I know being a woman, I'm very proud. But, really, I want it to send a message and have an echoing effect for other people, but particularly for girls or women, that they need to dream big and go for it as well and that anything is possible. Because I would never - I mean, I would never, in a trillion years - think that this would have happened to a woman, only to a man.
So for me, personally, I'm off balance. I really, to be honest, I haven't come to terms with it.
Q. Could I just have one more follow-up, please. Aside from this renaming, I think one of the other things that people are looking forward to at this tournament is a farewell to Andre Agassi. I wondered if you could comment a bit on his career, what he's meant to the sport and to this event.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, you know, I saw him for the first time at Caesar's Palace when he was six years old. Vic Braden was with him. I'll never forget seeing him hit and thinking, Uh-oh, what's his name? I always ask Vic, what's his name, because I asked Vic about Tracy Austin, too, What's her name, when she was three. He said, Oh, that's Andre Agassi. I thought, He's gonna be...
He struck the ball so well. That's the first thing you look for. If you talk to coaches, like Robert Lansdorp and other people, what's the first thing you look for, it's striking of the ball.
He was unbelievable right there, and he already had a stage presence at six. Believe me, he loved it. Growing up in Vegas, understanding how to entertain, connect with the people, this kid always had the "it" factor.
What's been so wonderful as he matured as a human being is the fact of how he's reached out and given back. He's given more than he's received. I've been to his charter school -- he helps the -- in west Las Vegas, which is growing, and it's just fantastic. There's a waiting list. He does the Girls' and Boys' Club there, as well, which I went by and saw. I can tell you, he gives back. I know he wants to make an impact on education.
So he is just beginning a new phase. I call it transition. I don't ever think of it as retiring. But what he has given us through his tennis and the enjoyment has been unbelievable. One of the greatest returns of serve. But, more importantly, I think just to watch him grow as a human being and get married and have two kids. Of course marrying Steffi Graf wasn't too shabby either.
I just think this next part of his life, I can't wait to see how much greatness is going to be there as well. In fact, he might end up being better known for education or something else than he was even in tennis, who knows. He's been a great ambassador for it.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: Obviously, from a USTA / US Open perspective, every time Andre comes out of that tunnel at the US Open, it's going to be electric. We're all looking forward to that.
Q. I was going to ask you about retirement, but that's a bad word.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Yes (laughing).
Q. I'm going to ask my other question first. That is, besides signage, maybe you haven't had the time to get together and all talk about this, but what other presence besides signage will a spectator who's coming to the Open see, or somebody like me who plays at the National Tennis Center every weekend, how will we recognize your presence outside of the signage?
BILLIE JEAN KING: That's for Arlen and Franklin, or Franklin and Arlen, whatever way you guys want to talk about.
ARLEN KANTARIAN: Sure. That's going to be engrained in everything that we do. Obviously, there are three or four signs surrounding the park, one of which will be transformed by the US Open; the others of which we want to do the right job on and will follow.
Certainly, when we come on the air through television in 180 countries this park will be referred to as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center when we come on the air many times. Everything else from stationery to answering the phones to solicitations to advertising. I think this is something that will be engrained in everything we do.
Long-term, you've seen in other naming rights deals, we don't know 10 years from now how people will relate to this, but may be a whole new definition of "Billie Ball." We don't know how it will transpire.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Probably you guys, the media, are going to name it. I mean, what are we going to call it? I don't know. Couple of Billies. Going to be BJK, I don't know.
FRANKLIN JOHNSON: It will be for many Opens in the future. We don't think we're going to ask her to be at the front gates greeting everybody (laughter).
BILLIE JEAN KING: I can do that maybe for a little bit, for a certain time frame maybe. That would be fun.
Q. The other question, because it's clear that you're not going to retire, do you get tired? You have such a fire in your belly, it's clear. Probably, you know, that makes up for scores of people, what you've got as far as the energy and trying to fight for all these human rights interests and equality. Do you get tired, and how do you recharge?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I get tired for just a moment, but by the morning, if I open my eyes, I thank God for daylight, for another day, and giving me a chance to make this life a better one for myself and for everybody around me.
So God gave me extra energy, and I'm very thankful for that. Both my mom and my dad had an extreme amount of energy. So hardwiring was excellent. I don't know why I'm built the way I am, but this is, you're right, I do have a fire in my belly an the flame is still very high.
Q. Are there any specific accomplishments that you're trying to achieve beyond what you've already done such as equal prize money?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I'd like microfinancing in the third world. I want the women's sports foundation to make more of an impact. I've got -- oh, yeah. Believe me, until my last breath. I tell you one thing I want to be able to do until my last breath is play tennis.
Q. You were the USTA's Fed Cup Captain. You're currently the Chairman of a USTA committee. In the future will your role in the USTA increase at all?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I have no idea. Mr. Franklin, Franklin kept asking me to be the HP Chairperson for the committee. I'm not big on committees. We were laughing together.
But I think this committee has been good. I must say it's been a very active committee. I must say, they've done all the work, I've done very little of it. I must say, I think we've been good as a sounding board, and I think just listening to the staff, listening to the Board, listening to the people in the trenches, to try to help if we can for the future for the High Performance kids. I think the Evert Academy down in Florida has been a great move, and of course if we have McEnroe in New York and we have our Carson center, I mean, it's going to be a long haul, it takes ten years to make a champion, and champions are born as far as potential that God gives them, but we've got to find them.
They're out there. All the great champions of the past really want to help make a difference in the present and in the future. It's going to be a long haul, though. It's international. There's a lot of competition out there. We got to find the kids who are hungry, and we will do that.
FRANKLIN JOHNSON: I just want to say that Billie Jean has just been terrific in helping us reenergize our High Performance activity and working with Paul Roetert and Eliot Teltscher to get us to where we are, get us on track, and was very helpful to us on this Evert Academy move. Thank you, Billie Jean.
BILLIE JEAN KING: The staff is very good. We have to have a vision and we have to stick with it and keep going.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: On that note, everybody and members of the media, I want to thank you all for taking the time this afternoon and joining our guests Arlen Kantarian, Franklin Johnson and, of course, Billie Jean King, where today at the National Tennis Center it was announced that on Opening Day of the 2006 US Open the tennis center will be renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Thank you very much, and if you have any questions, everybody knows how to reach me. I'm Chris Widmaier. Thank you and good afternoon.
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