8:08 PM ET
- Johnette HowardESPN Staff Writer Close
- Columnist, ESPN.com
- Formerly at Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post
- Author of "The Rivals"
Of the many things that Billie Jean King has accomplished in her sprawl of a life, starting with winning Grand Slam titles at the same time she was fighting for social justice and conjuring up the women's pro tennis tour, World Team Tennis has always remained her most utopian vision. People who try to paint her as "only" a women's activist have always had her all wrong.
King is the opposite of a separatist. What she has always dreamed of, fought for, worked and willed herself to achieve was equality. And the WTT has always been the epitome of that dream. She's somehow kept it going through the big times and thin times for 42 years, with help the past few decades from her partner, Ilana Kloss.
Even now, the WTT remains one of the very few leagues in which men and women compete on the same team together. "Equal pay, equal treatment, equal respect. Equal everything, you see?" King likes to say.
And so, that's why it felt like a undeniable passage Monday afternoon when the 73-year-old King confirmed at a news conference in Indian Wells, California, that she is "passing the baton" and selling her majority stake in the league to venture capitalist Mark Ein, owner of the WTT's Washington Kastles franchise, and Fred Luddy, a software company founder who owns the San Diego Aviators.
"I am so happy today, you have no idea — this is perfect," an upbeat King said to the media.
She praised Ein and Luddy for emphasizing how much they want to continue the values, principles and community-minded outreach the WTT was founded on.
"We know we're passing the torch to somebody who can make it much bigger and much better than we can," King said. "And that's what we've been waiting and looking for."
In the WTT's early days, stars such as Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and King herself committed to play entire seasons. In more recent years, everyone from Pete Sampras to Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters to Andy Roddick and Martina Hingis to Nick Kyrgios have made cameo appearances in the league, along with many other players who found it hard to tell King no, often because they knew how dear the innovative league is to her.
Ein and Luddy say they have ambitious plans to regrow the WTT, which will consist of six teams this year. Ein said they hope to expand to 10 teams in 2018 and 16 teams by no later than 2020. He stressed he believes there is a market for pro tennis beyond the top 12 or so pro tournaments that are held in America each year and said the explosive growth of sports networks and media platforms today offers more opportunities for the WTT to thrive.
And so, while King agreed with a reporter's suggestion that the WTT has been her "baby" all these years, she insisted Monday was a "thrilling" personal moment for her, not a poignant one.
"I never think about the past. Unless it helps me in the present," King said. "You always want the generation after you to come along and make things better.
"So, this is the easiest 'giving up the baby' I've ever been through."