National Press Club

Billie Jean King urges more tennis to combat childhood obesity

May 9, 2012 | By Robert Webb |

Billie Jean King displays her NPC mug at a May 9 luncheon.

Billie Jean King displays her NPC mug at a May 9 luncheon.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Tennis legend Billie Jean King urged more tennis to combat American children's obesity at a May 9 club luncheon.

King won 12 grand slam singles titles and 16 grand slam doubles titles. She once was ranked the number one tennis player in the world, after defeating tennis great Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes" in 1973.

She said more than 800,000 Americans are on the courts today but it is urgent to get more children there.

King said she was aware that more tennis means less time on the computer and watching television. But she said the nation faces widespread heart and other diseases if habits of the young don't change.

"We have 25,000 tennis courts in the country now and larger rackets and larger balls for children," she said. She said there are 5,000 courts for children thanks to help from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and others.

She lauded the USTA for its support of the national drive against obesity. King is on the White House fitness council established by President Obama and carries its message wherever she goes.

King also praised Congress' action many years ago giving women the equality with men they were so long denied in school sports. The number of girls and women competing in sports soared she said.

She says she is thankful "tennis gives me my platform to help others." She founded the Women's Tennis Association and Women's Sports Foundation.

In 1988, King go-authored with Cindy Star, then a sports reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, a book titled "The History of Women's Tennis." She also wrote other tennis-themed books.

King recalled the early start she got as a filth grader in Long Beach, California, when she picked up her first racket. "I wanted to be the best tennis player in the world," she said. "It is the sport of a lifetime for boys and girls." She said her first racket "was my Linus."

As a child, she said she attended the First Church of the Brethren and saluted the Rev. Bob Richards, its pastor, who was also an athlete encouraging sports participation. She mentioned a number of male tennis greats she had known, including Stan Smith and John McEnroe.

Part of what helped make her a great tennis player, she said, was the attention her parents gave her. "My mother and dad were a great team," she said. "They helped each other." She added that "me and my brother were so close."

Asked what she thought of American tennis today, she said, "We need more champions. U.S. tennis is not at its height now."

Waving one of the larger rackets and balls, she said they make it easier for children to learn the sport. As the program ended she pitched many children's balls, her name on each, to the crowd.