The revamped Fed Cup Finals taking place in Budapest in April shows that women’s tennis remains the leader in the battle for equality for women’s sport, American trailblazer Billie Jean King said on Tuesday.
King, who fought the establishment to create the professional Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, was at the Fed Cup draw as the 57-year-old women’s team event launched a new chapter.
Twelve nations featuring many of the world’s leading women players are to descend on the Hungarian capital for a week-long event boasting US$18 million in prize money.
Tennis already sets the bar with equal prize money paid to women and men at Grand Slams, but King said that the Fed Cup prize pot matches that of the revamped Davis Cup held in November is “huge.”
“This is an unbelievable opportunity for the next three years,” 76-year-old King, a Fed Cup global ambassador, told reporters by telephone after the draw ceremony held in the stunning Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
“It makes me very proud that women’s tennis is showing that it’s still the leader in women’s sports. That means a lot to me, so we must continue to be that,” she added.
King, who on the court won 12 Grand Slam singles titles (eight in the professional era), but also fought off court for the creation of a professional tour and for equal prize money, played in the first edition of the Fed Cup in 1963.
That event, started 63 years after the first men’s Davis Cup, featured 16 nations in London, with King helping the US to victory over Australia in the final.
The new format, featuring 12 nations battling for the title over a week, is something of a throwback to the first edition, but King said that it is actually worlds apart.
She was paid daily expenses to cover dinner while the winning team in Budapest are to share US$3.2 million, with US$1.2 million going to the winning federation. Teams who fail to progress out of the four groups would still share US$500,000.
“That’s how it was, we were amateurs,” said King, who paired with Darlene Hard to beat career rival Margaret Smith (now Court) and Lesley Turner in a deciding doubles in the final. “But I was desperate to have our name first on the trophy.”
“That first Fed Cup featured 16 nations, total. This year, 116 started out. That gives you a measure of the huge growth,” King said.
“And the new format? It’s huge. The players wanted one less week in the calendar, they got that. And they wanted more money, and the ITF [International Tennis Federation] came up with the money,” she said.
“It’s equal with Davis Cup, which is a very important message, because the ITF has really basically governed themselves to have equality, to make sure they are fighting for equality. They are not just talking, they are showing,” she added.
Women’s tennis was an example for other sports, especially in the US, King said.
“We need all women’s sport thriving. Baseball is 150 years old, NFL is a 100 years old and NHL is 100 years old this year, and there’s no women’s leagues. That’s another thing on my brain to try and figure out,” King said.
“We took our stance 50 years ago. We were going to get suspended. We didn’t know what would happen to us, but we fought like crazy for three things: to have a place to compete, to be appreciated for accomplishments, not just looks, and to make a living,” she said.
“That was the dream for future generations and they are living it now,” she added.
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