From the mid-60s to the mid-70s, professional athlete Billie Jean King dominated women’s 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 Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s 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 Freedom—the highest civilian honor given—for 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 O’Connor and Bishop Desmond Tutu.) In the last two years, King’s 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 ABILITY’s Pamela K. Johnson about navigating the world—and the tennis court—with new knees.
Johnson: When did your knees start to give you problems?
King: In my twenties.
Johnson: We’re 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 old.
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 you’re saying that performing surgery on you was a mistake?
King: They didn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t know any of that. I couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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, you’ve 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. It’s harder on your body, but you can do it.”
So we went ahead and did both and I immediately got into rehab. I’m a rehab-crazy-mania person, especially given that the people who don’t 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 while—it depends on what knee operation you have—but once rehab starts, you’ve 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; he’s the top guy there for knee replacement. He told me, “You’ll have a lot of pain, and it’ll 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. I’m really pleased. It’s made such a difference in my life, because the situation with my knees was really getting to be horrible.
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 those—six 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, he’s 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 didn’t 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 the country.
It’s 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 couldn’t even walk to a restaurant that’s 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, I’m usually walking around. I’ve been a mover since childhood. But I couldn’t take a walk to the park, and I’ve got Central Park right outside.
Johnson: I used to live in New York.
King: So you know. I couldn’t do anything.
Johnson: You couldn’t 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 didn’t have to think, “Oh, wow, should I walk the length of the ship? It’s going to be hard on my knees. I’ve got to plan this,” which I did for so many years. I’m still getting used to the idea that now I don’t have to think. If I want to walk from 80th Street down to the bottom of Manhattan, I don’t have to think, “Oh, wow, can I do that?” I can walk forever now. I love my tennis again. Okay I’m 68, and not very good.
King: But the point is, I’m getting my exercise. Exercise is so critical to our health; it’s 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 don’t run on cement. I’ll play my tennis. That’s tough on the knees whether you have knee replacement surgery or you don’t. But I’m still careful because I want [my new knees] to last; I don’t want to have another operation if I can help it. So I do the best I can to take care of them.
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. That’s my minimum. And that should be six days a week. I’m really trying to stick to that. If I’m having a day where I don’t 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 don’t want to do it, get off.” I’ve only gotten off after only five minutes once. So that’s 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 I’m going to have a busy day the next day, I’ll 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 going now.
Johnson: What’s 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 don’t eat red meat much any more; I don’t like it.
Johnson: Where did you go on your most recent cruise?
King: The Caribbean, that’s what my friends wanted. Usually they like to go to the Caribbean, sometimes the Mexican Riviera. We’ve been to the Mediterranean, which was fantastic, but when we visited the different ports, I had to take the bus because my knees weren’t cooperating.
I love cruising; I love the ocean, and I love visiting with my friends because I don’t get to see them often enough. We all live in different places. When I’m 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. There’s 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 won’t 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, I’m 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 can’t speak for everyone. Some people have trouble after the operation. And I know these are not the knees that I was born with. That’s very clear.
Johnson: What’s different?
King: You have to get used to them. When you first wake up after surgery, your legs feel heavier than normal and you’re 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 I’m 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 I’m aging, which is normal, but the more I read, the more I know that it all comes down to exercise and nutrition. I’m really lucky to have a lifetime sport. I don’t 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. What’s important to me is to keep my cardio up, and if my knees don’t work that makes it hard. My life’s better now, in some ways, than when I was playing professionally because I don’t go to bed every night icing my knees, and trying to fall asleep. I was always in pain in the old days. That’s 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 don’t even think about my knees.
Johnson: Do you ever run into Chris Everett? How are her knees these days?
King: Her knees are still good. Chris and Martina [Navratilova] are from a younger generation. I’m 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, “You’ve 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 Women’s Professional Tennis Association [which currently governs professional women’s tennis]. We were the first generation—called The Original Nine—and 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. That’s 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. It’s just everyday things: Like to sit down for breakfast this morning; I don’t have to use my arms and go, “Ugh, it’s 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 isn’t necessarily going to bring the latter group the degree of satisfaction that it brings the former.
King: We’re older and wiser. We’re 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. I’m 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 couldn’t get down or get up. Now I can. But I don’t 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 don’t think about it. With these, I’m like, “I’m not getting down on my knees.” It’s just little things I’m just not going to do if I don’t 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.” It’s men and women competing on the same team with equal contributions from both genders. It’s a vision that I’ve had since I was a young girl, and it thrills me. I’m 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: I’m very involved with the Women’s 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. I’m also serving on the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition because I feel that we have to find a way to keep our country—especially our young people—active.
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 don’t let their disability stop them from moving forward, which is an inspiration to me.
Articles 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; Tourette’s — A Friendly Fil; Geri Jewell — Paper or Plastic; China — Exposing the World; Push Girls — Living Large; Marathon — Horses Help Vets to Heal; John Williams — He’s the Man; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…