Billie Jean King

© Melissa Dispenza

Tennis legend Billie Jean King told REALTORS® that the ability to adapt to change is important for becoming successful.

Billie Jean King: ‘Pressure Is a Privilege’

November 10, 2019

The ability to adapt to change may be the single most important quality behind success in any field, said tennis legend Billie Jean King, a champion of women’s sports and social change on and off the court. Her message resonated with hundreds of attendees during Sunday’s Inspirational Program at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Francisco.

King’s thoughts about how to reach your potential—both “inner and outer success”— included:

  • Keep learning how to learn: “We have to keep up with technology. When I wanted to learn video, I asked an 8-year old.”
  • Be a problem solver: “Come up with creative ideas that you can push forward.”
  • Focus on relationships: Through participating in sports, “people learn how to navigate business better.”

While she is frequently lauded for promoting women’s equality, King demurred a bit, noting her focus is “human equality. My platform is to fight for equality for everyone.” Inclusivity has been a part of her personality since she was a kid in Long Beach, Calif. “When we were picking teams, I didn’t want anyone to be left out. I never chose the worst kid last.”

But she is acutely aware of the societal burdens girls and women face in schools and in the workplace. “Girls are taught they have to be perfect, while boys are taught to be brave. Girls never think they’re good enough. These ideas are not good for anyone.”

When discussing the 1973 “battle of the sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs, a watershed moment in sports history, King noted that she wasn’t at all nervous the day of the competition. “I get nervous two or three months before a match and less nervous as I visualize what’s going to happen. I picture getting the ball in and not getting upset at bad line calls,” she said. “I have an aerial view of the court in my head. By the time the match comes, I’m focused and calm. I even went to a cocktail party the night before the match to thank everyone for coming. I wanted to do that before I played.”

Her longtime mantra, “pressure is a privilege,” has guided her career in tennis—in which she won 39 Grand Slam titles—and the business world. She is founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit focused on achieving diverse and inclusive leadership in the workforce, and is currently a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Noting that while she always had a competitive spirit, King never touched a tennis racket until someone asked to play when she was in fifth grade, she said. “After two years, I wanted to be. No. 1 in the world.”

Her road to coming to terms with her sexual orientation was more circuitous. “It was a long haul. It took me a long time to know my authentic self. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin until I was 51,” said King, now 75. “And I lost all of my money overnight” after being outed in 1981. “I was crushed to see how mean people can be.”

Now as a role model in the LGBTQ community, King’s advice to people wrestling with their sexuality: “Come out when you are ready. Make sure you trust the people you come out to. And if your parents can’t cope, find an extended family.”

She places her own twist on the golden rule to treat others how you would want to be treated. “That’s kind of narcissistic. I say ‘treat people how they want to be treated.’”