The First Of Billie Jean King's 50 Wimbledons

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King's first title at Wimbledon, at the age of 17. This year is also her 50th consecutive Wimbledon. Guest host Susan Stamberg talks with tennis legend about how the game has changed.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The sound of victory, something tennis legend Billie Jean King knows very well. Fifty years ago, King won the first of 20 Wimbledon titles. And in the official history of the championships, Billie Jean King is called the most dynamic and prolific winner ever to play at Wimbledon. Her prowess on the court helped to redefine society's view of women in sports and she is still championing the case of equal opportunities for women athletes.

Billie Jean King joins us on the phone from Wimbledon. Hi.

Ms. BILLIE JEAN KING (Tennis Champion): Hi, Susan. How are you?

STAMBERG: Very good, thanks. And tell us what you remember about that win back in 1961. It was in women's doubles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KING: Well, Karen Hantze was my partner. She was 18. It was her second year at Wimbledon and I was 17 my very first year at Wimbledon in 1961. We just were so happy and Karen kept telling me we could win the whole thing and I kept saying you're crazy; there's no way. We had no money. We couldn't even go to the Wimbledon Ball because we didn't have enough money to buy a dress to go to the ball.

In those days, it was amateur tennis. We weren't making big prize money like the people you see today with all the millions that the top players make. So, everything was very tight. I was just going to start going to California State University at Los Angeles in the fall. So, we giggled our way through the championships. It's one of my fondest memories ever. I still see Karen and her husband, Rod Susman, every year.

STAMBERG: And you have gone to every single Wimbledon ever since.

Ms. KING: I have. I have not missed a year and I'm really glad I haven't. I started thinking about it about two years ago. I said, you know what, it's going to be close to 50 years and, sure enough, this is it.

STAMBERG: What are you excited about this year, Billie Jean King?

Ms. KING: You know what I'm excited about? Is the fact that it's wide open in the men's and the women's. And I'm thrilled that Serena and Venus are back playing. I'm very happy that Maria Sharapova has found her form again. I'd like to see Wozniacki, who's number one in the world, I'd like to see her do well. And Li Na, who is the first Chinese person ever to win a major - she won the French. So, I'm just looking forward to how all these people play.

And then on the men's side, I loved the way Djokovic - he's really played the best of anyone this year. And, obviously, Federer and Nadal, I love the way they play. They have a contrast of styles, which I think always makes it wonderful and wonderful rivalry, very much like Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were, or maybe McEnroe-Borg for a short while.

STAMBERG: What is your take on the state of U.S. tennis these days?

Ms. KING: We're not doing well. We know it. It's a reflection of, you know, sports are a microcosm of society and it's a reflection on the way the world's going, that we're having to compete with the whole world. And when I was playing, I don't think people realized we really weren't competing with the entire world.

I think it gets back to education and a mentality. And, you know, we have a lot of American kids out there I know that can be great tennis players.

STAMBERG: Can you tell us what it feels like to hit a perfect shot?

Ms. KING: It feels like it's mind, body and soul totally integrated for one perfect moment and you feel like you're one with yourself and one with the universe all in a very split moment.

STAMBERG: The first time you do it, do you have time to stop and think, gee, I just did that, or is it just all moving so fast?

Ms. KING: No, no, it's just a split moment. You're in and out. You're totally in the process, in the moment. That's when you're in the zone in anything. And all you do in life, if you're engaged in the moment, that's when life, I find, is the most, you know, it's most gratifying.

STAMBERG: Billie Jean King. This year marks the 50th anniversary of her first win at Wimbledon. Thanks a lot.

Ms. KING: Thanks a lot, Susan.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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