Billie Jean: why Britain must build on the value of park life

Who says the cousins across the pond care nothing for Little (Ol') Britain? There they were one drizzly morning at the end of last week, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams and the great Billie Jean King, standing around shivering in the Tower of London grounds to drum up funds for the blighted grass- roots of British tennis.

The affable Roddick briefly feigned indignation: "So this is to produce someone who's gonna whip my butt? I'm outta here." But he stayed, showing infinite good humour and patience, after King assured him: "Don't worry, it takes 10 years to make a champion. You'll be 32." As she acknow-ledged in a long and passionate interview, there are no guarantees, though she likes to quote the American coaching guru Robert Lansdorp, a sort of sporting Jesuit: "Give me 100 highly motivated children aged seven or eight who love tennis and I'll get you a champion."

The key, according to the American Express Aces Programme, which King is backing, is the local park, and making all publicly owned courts in this country available free of charge, with free coaching and equipment. The new Tennis For Free campaign, set up by the author and comedian Tony Hawks (the joker who played every one of the Moldovan football team at tennis) will be one of the main beneficiaries of Aces this year.

In aiming to provide better opportunities for all ages and classes, it has struck a chord with King. A brief history lesson: in 1961, Billie Jean's prize from her first (all-amateur) Wimbledon was a gift voucher for £45, which she had to sell illicitly to Fred Perry to afford her plane fare home. Nine years later, with the open era well under way, the winner's prize-money at one leading tournament in the US was $10,000 for the men and $1,200 for the women, nine of whom, including King, decided to protest by organising their own competition at the same time. A women's circuit, sponsored by Virginia Slims, followed.

In 1973, the Women's Tennis Association was founded with Billie Jean as president - a year after she famously defeated Bobby Riggs, the original male chauvinist pig, in three straight sets - and equal prize-money was paid at the US Open.

She was later outed as a gay sportswoman, and continued to fight prejudice of all types throughout a career that brought 39 Grand Slam titles, including 20 at Wimbledon, a record now shared with Martina Navratilova. Eloquent and committed, she returns to south-west London this year as guest rather than commentator, and will take every opportunity to volley home the message to anyone concerned with British tennis about the importance of park life.

"As a child who started playing through a free group programme, I was thrilled when I heard about this [initiative], because I know how it changed my life. I went out in Long Beach, California, 11 years old, and by the end of the lesson, I wanted to be the No 1 player in the world. You just look at America and the champions come from the parks: Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, me, Arthur Ashe, Don Budge, right back through our history. I think tennis is perceived here as an upper-class sport, but it's not. In America you have your country clubs, but 75 per cent of tennis is played on public parks. And the kids from the lower incomes are much more hungry and want a better life. Look at this wave of players from Russia."

Not that producing champions should become the be-all and end-all, King insists: "I'm interested in a critical mass of children playing, because we know that exercise is so vital and that sport helps with so many things - heart disease, depression, cancer."

What is less healthy, she believes, is the obsession with a Brit winning Wimbledon and the consequent pressure heaped on Tim Henman. "A Henman win would be fantastic. But I think it's piggish to expect it from him. He's an over-achiever, with that serve. He's one of the most intelligent players, he's got one of the few volleys left in the game, he's a beautiful mover round the court and his choice of shot, which equals talent, is usually correct. What lets him down is his weight of shot and his serve. But he was fourth in the world. How about being the fourth-best lawyer in the world, the fourth-best doctor, the fourth-best enter-tainer? I mean, come on, let's put this in perspective. He's done the best he can with what he's got, which is all we can ever ask of another human being, but they want more out of him. We should embrace what he's done so well and maybe that would be more helpful to him."

And what should we ask of the next generation of Henmen and women? "It's like John Newcombe used to say about the Aussies: they told him he was going to be good and he started to believe it. That's what you've got to do in the UK. Keep telling them what they do well, not what they don't. That's what I think the Brits don't do enough of with the kids. It's important for the British people culturally to be really positive with the children and not be negative. You've got to break with that old mentality."

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