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Billie Jean King Talks Tennis, The South Side, And Taking A Knee

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Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King speaking in Des Moines, Iowa in 2016.

Gage Skidmore

Two of the biggest stars in American women’s tennis will play a match on Chicago’s South Side next month as part of World TeamTennis, the league popularized by tennis legend Billie Jean King.

Defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens will take the court alongside Chicago native Taylor Townsend at XS Tennis Village in Washington Park on July 27.

Both players are African-American, a fact King hopes will be an inspiration to young, emerging tennis fans and players in the Chicago area. King is also an advocate for gender equality and inclusiveness.

"We thought it'd be great to do an introduction match but, more importantly, help the community at the same time," she said in an interview with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia and WBEZ sports contributor Cheryl Raye Stout.

Morning Shift talks to King about the upcoming tennis match and her work to promote LGBTQ rights, gender pay equality, and diversity and inclusion in the sports world and beyond.

On helping the community: ‘We want to bring team tennis back to Chicago’

Tony Sarabia: This is on the South Side of Chicago, Washington Park, a predominantly African-American community — why is it important for this match to be in that particular community?

Billie Jean King: Because it's important to take tennis to the people, not the people come to us. So we're going to them. And because XS Village has created this venue, it just opened. I think it's a beginning to really help South Chicago.

Cheryl Raye Stout: It's a two way street. It's not just helping the community, but it's helping tennis to be able to cultivate and find these new stars, these new players that will be representing the United States in other tournaments.

King: We know access is absolutely important. Without it, you can't make it. Without the support of a community ... if I hadn't had Long Beach behind me, I never would have been able to afford to go to Wimbledon. It's just amazing how it makes a difference when people care about the youth, they care about educating them and doing what's best for them.

If you can see it, you can be it.

On tennis legend Althea Gibson

King: Althea is our Jackie Robinson of tennis. I got to see her as a child. Even though I'm a white girl, she is one of my all time she-roes because of getting to see her play and understanding how great you had to be to be No. 1.

On addressing social justice issues

Sarabia: I was reading an article from last year when the movie Battle of the Sexes came out and you said sports is the great equalizer, where leaders can confront society's issues head on. So how important is it today for athletes to do and to address some of the things you did early on in your career and that you continue to do?

King: I think in sports we need to use this platform — as long as we're appropriate — to bring attention to racism, to social injustice, to poverty, leadership ... all of these things that matter to everyone.

On football players taking a knee during the national anthem

King: We do have racism and we need to face up to it. Listen, I would never kneel during the anthem; this is me personally though. This doesn't mean they don't love their country. When they kneel during the anthem, this means they're trying to make us aware of things and that they love their country. They actually love their country more.

We need to address racism. We have to stop this insanity. I don't think that's all bad. They're not being disruptive. There's no violence involved.

On building a legacy

Raye Stout: You've been doing this such a long, long time. What do you want your legacy to be totally?

King: I don't really care about it. I don't think about it that much. People are gonna decide what my leg is anyway more than I am. But ... I've always wanted to make a difference since I was 12, when I had that epiphany and I wanted to fight for equality. I'm all about equality and leadership and giving back.

LEARN MORE: Sloane Stephens And Taylor Townsend To Play A World TeamTennis Match In Hyde Park In July (Chicago Tribune 6/4)

2017 Commencement Address By Billie Jean King (Northwestern University)

Billie Jean King’s Early Epiphany Led To Social Activism (USA Today 9/29/17)

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the XS Tennis Village and said it was located in Woodlawn when in fact it is located in Washington Park. 

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