Billie Jean King, 72, has never backed down, whether she was beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” or winning Grand Slam tournaments — of which she took 39 titles (12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, 11 mixed doubles). These days, the International Tennis Hall of Famer has teamed with Janssen Pharmaceuticals (myafibrisk.com) to champion awareness for atrial fibrillation (AFib), a type of irregular heartbeat battled by King and 33.5 million people worldwide. We caught up with the former World No. 1 to talk stroke prevention and, of course, tennis.
How did you discover your AFib?
It happened after I played tennis one day. I was in New York and I got out of the taxi and I got really, really dizzy, like I was going to faint. I almost blacked out and I caught myself by putting my hand on a car. Then, all of a sudden, I was okay. But my heart was pounding and it felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. I went upstairs and started looking for a cardiologist, and lied down because I was scared.
I went to a doctor and he had me hold my breath when they did the EKG and my heart started to go into AFib again, which is an irregular heartbeat. So I had to start worrying about it. I’ve had an ablation (procedure to keep heartbeat in a normal rhythm) since, but I still take my blood thinner once a day and I feel great.
What are some steps people can take to minimize risk?
Go to myafibrisk.com and it has eight questions. It’s bing, boom, bam, fast — very easy peasy. And it will help you calculate your stroke risk and that’s what we want because we don’t want somebody that has AFib having a stroke. It’s very important that we get the word out.
You were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, what does that mean to you?
It means a lot to be recognized. It’s good news, bad news. Social justice. (President Barack Obama) mentioned the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, which was nice because no president’s ever mentioned the word “gay” in their life, and he was the first. That meant a lot to me.
Also I was the first woman athlete, which is good news, bad news because I was thinking there were so many great women before me that should have gotten it, like Althea Gibson. She was the first person of color to win a major, she’s like our Jackie Robinson. No one has appreciated her enough.
I was very touched and very blessed, and my mom was still alive so she got to see it so that was fantastic. She was so happy to meet the President and Michelle (Obama). They’re so kind and warm and they always hug everybody, and they look you in the eye and they actually are very present. So that was nice and my mom enjoyed it. So that was great. It was a very touching moment.
Looking back, what were some unique opportunities tennis provided you?
Being able to travel globally as a tennis player, I realized what an advantage I had over other athletes who only stayed in the United States most of their lives. I met the Queen of England, I’ve talked to the best people in the world in everything, whether it’s music, art, other sports. I saw Richard Gere the other day. Elton John, he wrote a song for me called Philadelphia Freedom.
What are some of the innovations World Team Tennis, the league you co-founded, has introduced to the sport?
We’re the innovators, the think tank for the sport. We’re the ones that push the sport. If you hear music, we started music. If you see branded courts, we started branded courts. We’re the first ones. We’ve also put the names on the back of the shirts, which they still don’t do in tournament tennis so I hope they will.
We’re the first ones to let people keep the ball like a foul ball in baseball. We’re the first ones to hit balls into the stands during matches and after the matches. We’ve been doing it since 1975! We’re the ones that just keep pushing and pushing to be more. We have a shot clock, we’re at 25 seconds on the court. They haven’t done that in tournament tennis I guarantee you they’re going to start doing that.
We also were the first ones to use that challenge, we’re the first ones competitively to do that. Well we do that one year, they do it the next year. We just keep pushing and pushing and pushing for the sport.
Do you think Serena could win a modern “Battle of the Sexes” like you did against Bobby Riggs in 1973?
They can play but it won’t have the same cachet because it will be the third one. I played Bobby and when I played Bobby the time in history was very different. It was much more significant. And Martina played Jimmy Connors.
Is there a reason American men’s tennis has taken a step back or do you think it’s just cyclical?
Yeah. I think we need a critical mass of kids playing and we don’t have it. And we need to get the best athletes. We need to get the really great male athletes, like Pete Sampras. There’s a guy who could play any sport and would’ve been great.
Are there any young women’s players that you have your eye on who might be ready to break out?
I’m gonna have to go with Madison Keys right now. I don’t know, you have to give them time because you don’t know if they really want it, if they’re gonna stay injury free. You know it’s something to say at 18 but boy winning gets tough when you’ve got that daily grind of getting up in the morning no matter how you feel.
You gotta eat right, you gotta do all the right things, you gotta be motivated and you’ve gotta be willing to change technique if you need to. You’ve gotta be willing to do so many things to be the best. And it’s a commitment every single moment of every single day, there’s not a lot of gray area. And some kids can sustain that, and some kids can’t.
The kids that are talented physically are the ones that everybody gets excited about, but you have to look for the kids who are talented physically but they have that inner hunger and fire in their bellies to want to make a difference in their careers. I mean really be the best they can be.
What makes greatness is when you have your head, heart and gut in unison and integrated, totally integrated. Head, heart, and gut. When one of those is missing or two of those is missing, it’s not happening. You gotta have all three areas, physically, mentally, emotionally. That’s what makes a great jock, a great athlete. They’re rare.