Billie Jean King has a special connection with the word freedom. It always has been one of her favorite words since she was a child.
King is now the owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms World TeamTennis squad, and the name has remained as relevant through the years. It relates to the current social state in America.
The heightening of awareness of Black Lives Matter resonates with King.
“It’s been a gift for me personally, because my Black friends have actually opened up,” King said. “I think we all have to just stick together and keep pressing for these changes and really not let up. We cannot let up.”
King, 76, was at the height of her career in the 1960s when some of the biggest advocates of social injustice were assassinated. While she enjoyed the success of winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy died two months apart. She even recalls John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X being assassinated in 1963 and 1965, respectively.
King herself also has been one of the biggest voices in hopes of equality, particularly for women. She famously defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973.
With the added power of social media, King believes that this year’s movement is different than the injustice battles that occurred in the ’60s.
“We didn’t have this kind of way to connect, and it was mostly Black people protesting,” King said. “This time, I feel like everyone is in. I feel like this is the first time that white people have actually listened. Altogether, I’m hoping and praying that we have systemic change now.”
After becoming the first ever pick in the World TeamTennis professional league in 1974, King was asked to choose the name of Philadelphia’s team. Sitting in her hotel room, she knew what she wanted it to be, but it had to resonate with the people of Philly. She got it down to two choices, and eventually chose Freedoms a day later.
The legend of the name grew more when King’s friend, Elton John, released a single titled Philadelphia Freedom in 1975. John told King he wanted to write a song for her, and he attended some of her matches with the Freedoms, which led to the choice. That song later had a two-week peak at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
“There are not many sports teams that have a song written for them,” King said. “Especially someone like Elton’s stature, so it’s really nice.”
Out of caution due to COVID-19, King will not be in attendance as the Freedoms prepare for the WTT tournament, which begins July 12 in White Sulphur Springs, WV. She’s hardly left her New York home and has been doing most of her work on Zoom calls.
King stated that she will make her way to the tournament if the Freedoms make the playoffs. She’s a hands-on owner, who has been in the position for 19 years. King can name each of the current players, tell you how long they’ve been with the Freedoms, and break their game down like only a former tennis player could.
“She makes it her business to know these players,” Freedoms president Barbara Perry said. “If you sit with her and watch a match, she’s observing it the way a player would. When someone’s at that level of a sport, there’s nothing like listening to how they view things.”
King recalls her days as a World Team Tennis player as “the most exciting” times she had playing tennis because of the team aspect. Even more than Grand Slam tournaments like Wimbledon.
WTT has grown exponentially since 1974, and this season, games will be broadcast on ESPN+, CBS, CBS Sports, Facebook Watch and the Tennis Channel.
It won’t be easy for King to be away. She would’ve attended all home matches and believes the Freedoms have a good chance at winning the tournament.
COVID-19 halted King’s plans, but it has given her the freedom to sit back and put things in perspective.