The COVID-19 pandemic is having as massive an impact on the sporting world as on every other aspect of our lives. To overcome the challenges it presents to me, my family and my community, I find myself returning to qualities I developed as a young athlete – resilience, adaptability, courage. They are not always easy to maintain but I’m not out on the court all on my own. We are in this together.
Shine the light, shine the light
Shine the light, won't you shine the light
From Philadelphia Freedom, by Elton John, inspired by Billie Jean King
At age 11 I knew I wanted to be the number one tennis player in the world.
At age 13, I realised something I now recognise was even more important: I wanted to change the world. Did I use the word ‘leader’? I don’t think so. I just knew I wanted to make the world a better place by fighting for equality.
I’d been playing tennis for two years. Not at the exclusive country clubs some of my school friends were members of, but rather thanks to the free instruction available at our public parks. And then there were my wonderful parents who worked hard at three jobs to support my brother’s devotion to baseball and mine to tennis.
Already I was aware the world of tennis I occupied was overwhelmingly white – white shoes, white clothes, white people! But tennis was global and I wondered to myself, ‘Where is everyone else?’. The other thing I understood very early on was that girls were not considered as important as boys, on or off the court. And if it was tough for me then I knew my sisters of colour and those with disabilities were having an even harder time of it. So I promised myself that I would fight for equality and inclusivity. Decades later, we’ve had a lot of wins. But the journey is not over.
Being a tennis player, like being any kind of professional athlete, is hard work. It doesn’t matter who you are, you just have to grind it out over many years. And of course, being a female athlete comes with all kinds of other challenges. But I also discovered it comes with some important advantages, one of which is the relationship you have with your body.
As an athlete, I understood my body and I trusted it. I knew what it was capable of – its strength, instincts and potential. Girls outside of sport back then – and still today – were not taught to have an empowered and empowering relationship with their bodies. The focus was just on being perfect and pretty, on not taking up too much space. On the court I could take up as much space as I wanted.
This is one of the reasons why I believe giving girls equal opportunities to participate in sports is so important. Sport can give girls a physical confidence they are not otherwise encouraged to have.
Sport also helps you develop resilience. This was something I learned about as a kid from my dad. He was really big on delayed gratification.
“You want that tennis racquet, Billie Jean? You gotta work for it and save up.”
I’m keeping that delayed gratification lesson in mind now. We’re all missing out on things that are important to us – for me one of those things is going to Wimbledon with my partner and friends, which I’ve done every year since 1961. This is minor compared to what many are dealing with. I can deal with it, I can wait.
That patience was also learned on the court: you have to be resilient, and work long and hard for the results. Every single moment of play is an opportunity to learn, to get feedback, to correct, to find a solution. One of the things I love about tennis is that the ball never comes over the net the same way twice, so you have to be prepared to adjust quickly.
Billie Jean King (right) takes a walk with partner Ilana Kloss on 15 April – the anniversary of Jackie Robinson 'breaking the colour barrier’ in baseball. “It was a very uncertain time for him, and we’re living in uncertain times now,” King told her Twitter followers. “Think about Jackie when you get down because he was very brave.”
And you have to be brave. There’s disappointment, pain, setbacks. My life was in tumult for many years while I was playing professionally. I was struggling with my sexuality and I was constantly fighting for equality in the sport. But resilience, the ability to adapt, a little courage and the support of people who believed in me meant I could come back from adversity many times over. Sport gave me that and it’s a gift every girl should have access to if she wants.
I am proud to have been part of the ‘Original 9’, a group of professional women tennis players whose fight to achieve equality in the sport – the pay ratio was 8:1, we had no women’s tournaments and we were always relegated to outside courts – drove the establishment of the Women’s Tennis Association. In 1970 the nine of us, including two Australians, signed $1 contracts with Glady Heldman and that was the birth of women’s professional tennis as we know it today.
Getting women onto centre court and achieving parity in prize money has been a tough haul. But our dream was that any girl, if she was good enough, could have a place to compete, that she should be appreciated for her accomplishments and not just her looks, and that she should be able to make a living from her sport. It was a dream we had for the entire world – because when I dream, I like to dream big! The Ash Bartys of the world are now living that dream – or have been and will again once professional tennis is back.
The temporary hospital facility at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, is up and running, and our team is ready to serve. The facility will be able to treat up to 350 non-ICU #COVID patients: https://t.co/SfKqxNglXs pic.twitter.com/zXFzSys7id— NYC Health + Hospitals (@NYCHealthSystem) April 10, 2020
And for every professional female athlete and women’s tournament, just think of all the other jobs that are created. It makes me so happy. It makes it all worth it.
This drive for equality should extend to every workplace and I encourage anyone in a position of power to think about that when they are building their businesses back up. Everyone can drive change, and making a workplace that is safe, inclusive and equal isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business. For leaders this means taking care not to discriminate on the basis of gender, unconsciously or otherwise. Where men tend to be hired on potential, for example, women are hired on past performance. It’s a disparity that undermines equality before it even gets started.
Women need to know what they’re worth in the workplace. They need to learn that saying “I want to be CEO” or “Let’s negotiate” or “That’s not enough” are all important. It’s another lesson we learn in sport – as athletes it’s totally normal for us to be competitive and ambitious and to ask for what we need. You can do the same. You deserve the same. For so long women have been expected to be thrilled with crumbs. But we want the cake! With the icing and the cherries on top too.
Successful CEOs will be the ones who support this, who listen and don’t dismiss. They are the ones who recognise people care about the values of the companies they support more than ever. The scrutiny is deeper, the loyalty is harder to come by. People won’t buy shares in a company whose values don’t speak to them. It’s becoming a bottom-line issue. So think of your business as a platform for change, just like sport is. And just as I believe athletes these days have to be more than just great at their sport, so do companies and CEOs. After all, what makes life meaningful and purposeful is to shine a light on others, not just have it shine on you. Remember, everyone can be an influencer. Everyone can be a leader.
And as for that promise I made as a 13-year-old? It still stands. More than ever. We know the pandemic, and the challenges associated with isolation and lockdowns will have a greater impact on vulnerable groups, including women. The need for equality never goes away. Let’s keep fighting for it.
For more insights and advice on leadership and more, check out the Leading through Change series.