From the mid-60s
to the mid-70s, professional athlete Billie
Jean King dominated womens tennis. Over the course of a
decades-long career, she won a combined 39 Grand Slam titles, including
singles, doubles and mixed doubles. In 1973, she triumphed in a famous
Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, himself
a former Wimbledon champ. But King, now 68, came along during an era
when the title-prize money for women was roughly a third of what men
took home; she founded the Womens Tennis Association and the
Womens Sports Foundation to address such inequities, and to
ensure a more solid future for girls coming up behind her.
In 2009, King received the august Presidential Medal of Freedomthe
highest civilian honor givenfor being an agent of change in
tennis, as well as for paving the way for equality in all girls sports
through the federal law Title IX. (Previous Medal of Freedom recipients
include Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sandra Day OConnor and Bishop Desmond
Tutu.) In the last two years, Kings attention has turned to
her health: The legendary player underwent knee replacement surgery
to address problems that had plagued her since her heyday. King spoke
with ABILITYs Pamela K. Johnson about navigating the
worldand the tennis courtwith new knees.
Johnson: When did your knees start to give you problems?
King: In my twenties.
Johnson: Were talking decades ago.
King: (laughs) Yes. I had my first operation when I was No.
1 in the world, or close to being No. 1. I was about 23 or 24 years
Johnson: What operation did you have then?
King: Oh, who knows? It was bad. I just had a little chondromalacia
(problems affecting the underside of the knee cap). If it happened
today, they would probably just have given me rehab and not surgery.
Johnson: So youre saying that performing surgery on you was
King: They didnt think it was a mistake in those days. This
is all in hindsight. But at the time it was the latest and greatest
they had to offer. In those days they used to put you in a cast or
a half-cast that was totally straight, no bend in it. They didnt
tell me about ice; they did not offer any rehab. My legs atrophied,
and I needed to get my muscles back. I asked them, Please give
me some help. And they went, Yeah, I dont know what
to tell you.
So I went up to Canada and improvised. A friend of mine knew a woman
up there [who thought she could help]. We tried all kinds of things.
I did leg extensions instead of leg presses, which would have been
better and not irritated my joints. They didnt know any of that.
I couldnt get any help, because there was no money in tennis
at that time. Everybody follows the money. Once there was money [to
be made] in tennis, then there were all kinds of people who wanted
to help us and learn about how to do weight lifting, all the obvious
stuff that we do today.
Johnson: Tell me about the other knee surgeries?
King: Before I had my knee replacement surgery on February 10th, 2010,
I had six operations and none of them worked.
Johnson: And which knee did you have done on February 10th?
King: I had both done at the same time.
Johnson: Both at once! Often they want to leave you with a good
leg to stand on, and do one at a time.
King: I pleaded with them to do both. I couldnt stand the thought
of doing one knee, going through rehab, and then going back and having
surgery again. No thanks. Also, you have to prepare for it, youve
got to give blood; you have to have tests. I am so busy that dragging
it out is like: Shoot me now. My doctors said, Fine. Its
harder on your body, but you can do it.
So we went ahead and did both and I immediately got into rehab. Im
a rehab-crazy-mania person, especially given that the people who dont
go to rehab enough are those who tend to have more problems. Those
people are making a big mistake, because rehab is everything in getting
well. I knew this from my other knee operations. You might have to
rest for a whileit depends on what knee operation you havebut
once rehab starts, youve got to be faithful with it.
Johnson: How long did you spend in rehab?
King: At least eight months. Dr. Jose Rodriguez at Lenox Hill Hospital
(in New York City) did it; hes the top guy there for knee replacement.
He told me, Youll have a lot of pain, and itll be
eight months to a year with both of them being done at the same time.
He was right on the money. I love him for being honest. He was great.
That was very helpful to me in understanding what was going to be
involved. He used the latest and greatest Smith & Nephew knees
with the oxinium on top of the titanium; that helps with wear and
tear. Im really pleased. Its made such a difference in
my life, because the situation with my knees was really getting to
Johnson: Many people put off knee replacement surgery for as long
as they can; when did you know that you had to have it done?
King: I put it off, too. My regular orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Karen
Schneider, gave me injections, and I got through a year with thosesix
months after each injection. The third time she gave me one I said,
The jig is up. She said, Then you need to go to
Dr. Rodriguez, hes our best guy. Anyway, I went and talked
to him, and made a date for surgery. I had to wait four or five months
because I had work to get done, and I wanted to allow for time after
the operation to do my rehab. I didnt allow half as much time
as I probably needed to, but I wanted to get back to work. When I
travel, though, I get in my rehab on the road. I find places all over
Its amazing how [having bad knees] can change your life. This
is a perfect example: I love going on cruises: On the ship, they have
a gym. When I get off the ship, I can go play tennis, or I can walk.
But during the cruise I went on before this one, I could not get off
the ship. I could not do the stationary bike. I could not lift weights.
I did a little exercise, but it about killed my knees. I was icing
them four or five times a day. Back home, I couldnt even walk
to a restaurant thats three blocks away. To go to the gym, I
had to take a taxi, and the gym is only two blocks away.
Everybody walks in New York City. I like walking. When I talk on the
phone, Im usually walking around. Ive been a mover since
childhood. But I couldnt take a walk to the park, and Ive
got Central Park right outside.
Johnson: I used to live in New York.
King: So you know. I couldnt do anything.
Johnson: You couldnt be who you are.
King: Not at all. Now with this last cruise, which I just came home
from recently, I went to the gym every day, I did the bike, I lifted
weights, I played tennis. I didnt have to think, Oh, wow,
should I walk the length of the ship? Its going to be hard on
my knees. Ive got to plan this, which I did for so many
years. Im still getting used to the idea that now I dont
have to think. If I want to walk from 80th Street down to the bottom
of Manhattan, I dont have to think, Oh, wow, can I do
that? I can walk forever now. I love my tennis again. Okay Im
68, and not very good.
King: But the point is, Im getting my exercise. Exercise is
so critical to our health; its critical to avoiding decay and
falling apart. My whole life is even better than when I was playing,
because I used to have knee operations and I would be in pain. These
days, I take good care of my knees. I dont run on cement. Ill
play my tennis. Thats tough on the knees whether you have knee
replacement surgery or you dont. But Im still careful
because I want [my new knees] to last; I dont want to have another
operation if I can help it. So I do the best I can to take care of
Johnson: Tell me about your exercise regimen. What do you do, and
how often do you do it?
King: I do at least a half an hour on the bike or more. Thats
my minimum. And that should be six days a week. Im really trying
to stick to that. If Im having a day where I dont feel
like doing anything, I tell myself: All right, just get on the
bike for five minutes. If at the end of five minutes you dont
want to do it, get off. Ive only gotten off after only
five minutes once. So thats a great way for me to get started,
because I have trouble getting started. Usually I do at least a half
an hour on the bike, and then I go to the gym and do my upper body
one day, and my lower body another day. Or if I know Im going
to have a busy day the next day, Ill do my whole body. It was
really good being on the cruise, because they have a great gym, and
I got to play tennis. I hope to keep the momentum from the cruise
Johnson: Whats your diet like?
King: I have trouble with it sometimes. I try to eat very healthy,
but I eat too much. My portion sizes could be smaller. On the cruise,
I ate vegetables and fresh fish every day, so I was in hog heaven.
I love fish. I dont eat red meat much any more; I dont
Johnson: Where did you go on your most recent cruise?
King: The Caribbean, thats what my friends wanted. Usually they
like to go to the Caribbean, sometimes the Mexican Riviera. Weve
been to the Mediterranean, which was fantastic, but when we visited
the different ports, I had to take the bus because my knees werent
I love cruising; I love the ocean, and I love visiting with my friends
because I dont get to see them often enough. We all live in
different places. When Im older, you could put me on a cruise
and that would be a great way to live. Aside from the great gym, we
can always find a tennis court when we dock. Theres great food,
lots of vegetables and salads. You can eat wrong or you can eat right.
You can eat nutritiously, or you can blow it. Now, most people [who
take cruises] blow it totally.
Johnson: They serve pizza at midnight.
King: I love cookies, like oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip. I wont
have any of those until two days before the cruise is over. I never
start out eating the cookies, because if I start the first day eating
the wrong things, Im going to be in trouble. I know my personality.
Johnson: Coming back to your knees, I talked to Constance Chu,
a knee replacement doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, and she
said that people tend to equate getting replacement knees with getting
a shiny new car. She said that the first set of knees that you get
in the womb are actually your shiny car, and the replacement knees
are not up to that standard; they generally cant take the wear
and tear that your first set can. Tell me about the new knees and
how they compare to the original pair.
King: I dont feel that way at all. I can tell that these are
not the knees I was born with, but after all those years of pain and
all those operations, they are a miracle to me. In the old days, I
did not know how to do the rehab correctly, so for me recovery was
a real struggle. My Smith & Nephew [brand] knees work so well.
I cant speak for everyone. Some people have trouble after the
operation. And I know these are not the knees that I was born with.
Thats very clear.
Johnson: Whats different?
King: You have to get used to them. When you first wake up after surgery,
your legs feel heavier than normal and youre all doped up. I
remember that after my operation, Dr. Rodriguez came in and said,
Stand up, let me see. I stood up, and right away I said,
Oh, my God. I know Im going to be okay. He says,
Really? I said, Yes, I can tell I feel more stable
already. I knew that if I put in the time and did my rehab,
my life would be changed for the better. And especially these last
years of my life, because Im aging, which is normal, but the
more I read, the more I know that it all comes down to exercise and
nutrition. Im really lucky to have a lifetime sport. I dont
need to compete. Everybody asks, Are you going to play tournaments
again? I go, Are you kidding? I just want to hit the ball.
I want the exercise and how good it makes me feel.
Now I can take a walk in Central Park or wherever I want. A friend
from Aspen came and we walked dozens of blocks from 30th Street up
to my apartment near Central Park. It was easy-peasy. Whats
important to me is to keep my cardio up, and if my knees dont
work that makes it hard. My lifes better now, in some ways,
than when I was playing professionally because I dont go to
bed every night icing my knees, and trying to fall asleep. I was always
in pain in the old days. Thats before they had the anti-inflammatories
that are now available over the counter, like Ibuprofen. Having something
like that would have been very helpful. Luckily, these days I go to
sleep at night and dont even think about my knees.
Johnson: Do you ever run into Chris Everett? How are her knees
King: Her knees are still good. Chris and Martina [Navratilova] are
from a younger generation. Im like 13 years older than Martina,
and 11 years older than Chris. Women of my generation mentored them,
so they did more of the right things to take care of their joints.
I told them, Youve got to do this and that. When you get
the opportunity, you need to do this. And both of them are very
good about taking care of themselves. I saw Chris recently. We had
a reunion of the nine original people who started The Womens
Professional Tennis Association [which currently governs professional
womens tennis]. We were the first generationcalled The
Original Nineand they invited the second generation, which is
Martina, Chris, and some of the other ones to come and celebrate.
Chris was sweet; she said thank you to all of us.
Johnson: Where was this?
King: Down in Charleston, SC, for the Family Circle Cup. It was fun.
Thats another thing, I was able to walk all over the place.
I used to have to have a golf cart to take me places, now I can walk.
Just little things like going up and down stairs, getting off a chair,
sitting down on a chair, getting on an airplane. It just goes on and
on and on how this has changed my life for the better. Its just
everyday things: Like to sit down for breakfast this morning; I dont
have to use my arms and go, Ugh, its so painful!
Johnson: One of the things that Dr. Chu, who also pioneers knee-treatment
research, said was that somebody in their 60s or 70s is going to have
a totally different reaction to knee surgery than somebody in their
40s or 50s, and that the surgery isnt necessarily going to bring
the latter group the degree of satisfaction that it brings the former.
King: Were older and wiser. Were moderate. Moderation
is okay. You get almost as much out of [the experience] as you would
the other crazy way. But some people are much higher risk-takers than
others, in general. They need more stimuli, like sky-diving, going
to the top of the mountain. You see that ad for that woman standing
at the top of this little mountain? Oh, my God, I am not her. Im
a wuss, and I know it.
I just want to be able to do my weights, my stationary bike and hit
the ball. Just those few things used to hurt me too much; I couldnt
get down or get up. Now I can. But I dont get down on my knees;
you should avoid that anyway. When people are young and have the knees
they were born with, they get down on their knees all the time and
dont think about it. With these, Im like, Im
not getting down on my knees. Its just little things Im
just not going to do if I dont have to.
Johnson: What are a few highlights from your career that you find
yourself reflecting upon?
King: My favorite championships are the three World TeamTennis Championships
I won in 1976, 1977, 1983, and the Fed Cup (international team play
for women) titles we won. Team play is so important to me. If you
have ever seen a World TeamTennis match you see my philosophy of life
in action. Its men and women competing on the same
team with equal contributions from both genders. Its a vision
that Ive had since I was a young girl, and it thrills me. Im
physically slower and not as strong as I once was, but I still work
full time at World TeamTennis, and it definitely keeps my mind active.
Johnson: You mentioned that one of the mottoes of your alma mater,
Long Beach (CA) Polytechnic High School, was Enter to Learn.
Go forth to serve. Beyond your impressive tennis serve, what
causes have you involved yourself in and why those particular ones?
King: Im very involved with the Womens Sports Foundation
and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. I believe in the missions of these
two organizations because they are about helping others, and making
a difference in the lives of those around us. Im also serving
on the Presidents Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition
because I feel that we have to find a way to keep our countryespecially
our young peopleactive.
Johnson: Do you have anyone in your immediate circle who is dealing
with a disability, and if so how has it affected your life?
King: I have friends with multiple sclerosis and they dont let
their disability stop them from moving forward, which is an inspiration
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from the Push
Billie Jean King Bouncing
Accenture and Prudential
Exposing the World
Push Girls Living Large
Williams Hes the Man
Joint Replacement Hard as a Bone
in the Push Girls Issue; Senator Harkin Working for Jobs; Ashley
Fiolek Switched at Conan; Paralympics Better Than the
Olympics?; ABILITY Award Accenture and Prudential; DRLC
Affordable Health Care Act Benefits; Billie Jean King Bouncing
Back; Joint Replacement Hard as a Bone; Tourettes
A Friendly Film; Geri Jewell Paper or Plastic; China
Exposing the World; Push Girls Living Large; Marathon
Global Heros; John Williams Hes the Man; ABILITY's Crossword
Puzzle; Events and Conferences...