King wants WTA, ATP to unite

NEW YORK -- Tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, who founded the Women's Tennis Association 35 years ago, says her real dream was to bring the men's and women's players' unions together under one banner.

"If people knew the history, they would know that I never wanted us to be separate from the guys," King told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday.

"I went to the ATP and they wouldn't let us in. So that was never my wish. My wish was always to be together, to be one voice, one power for the sport. My dream before I die is that both associations should be together again," she said.

King -- a winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, including 12 singles crowns, 16 doubles and 11 mixed doubles titles -- is known as a powerful advocate for women's rights, having also founded the Women's Sports Foundation and Women's Sports Magazine in 1974, the year after the WTA was formed.

She also raised consciousness with her win against former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in a much ballyhooed "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973, yet bristles at the way some people see her accomplishments as advancing only women's sports.

"An inspiration is an inspiration for boys and for girls," said King, who will present the Billie Jean King Cup to the winner of an exhibition involving Venus and Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic at Madison Square Garden on March 2.

"'She-roes and heroes come in different packages. I think a woman can be a hero to a man, or a man to a girl," she said.

King said she was disappointed in the impression some people had that her activism was focused on women's issues, saying what was most important to her was seeing men and women in a spirit of cooperation.

King said gender balance was at the heart of the team tennis format she forged in co-founding World Team Tennis in 1974 -- a pro league that has also become a model for youth programs in a deal struck last week with United States tennis chiefs.

"We're sending that message today to young people [that] we are going to cooperate as men and women, and we're going to help each other in this world. That's why we started team tennis," the 65-year-old said about the format that features men's and women's singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches that she believed would also be "fantastic for the Olympics".

"It's a level playing field," she said. "There's a statement there. What we're telling the world is here are men and women cooperating and equally contributing to the team effort and that spills over onto children and young people. As they grow up they think it's normal to help each other and that makes a better world. I know that's real idealistic, but that's who I am."