by Sue Wurster
I realize that this might come as something of a surprise, but I’m not exactly known for my athletic prowess. That lack of prowess, in fact, had much to do with my transferring from Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio at the end of my junior year. At Otterbein, I was facing a 5-term PE requirement and had already failed badminton, fencing, folk dance, bowling, skiing, horseback riding — as well as folk dance for a second time. (I had an attendance issue — getting up for an 8 or even 9 am PE course was just not my cup of energy drink.) Not only did OU have no PE requirement, but it also happened to have the top speech team in the country. I’m not really sure which was the bigger draw.
BUT — despite my virtual disdain for all things athletic, I’ve always loved tennis. Not playing it, of course. Watching it. Billie Jean won my heart in the 60s and has been there ever since. Her pioneering efforts helped women get paid their due–as athletes, as professionals, and as partners. Her strength and courage–in tennis and in life–have inspired me and countless women for fifty years.
And at 73, she’s still at it — playing some tennis, coaching some tennis, mentoring tennis players, organizing and administering tennis events, and using her influence to work, wherever possible, for social justice causes — gender equality, social inclusion, “fair play.”
So, on a balmy Saturday in August of 2016, I was happily ensconced, once again, at the Hotel Lucerne on West 79th Street in New York City. This is a favorite located in my old neighborhood. It welcomes me when I need a Broadway fix or the company of old and dear friends and can pretty much always be counted on to provide another round of the perennial NYC pastime known as “star sighting.” My old friend Susan and I had just sat down at Nice Matin located just outside the hotel door. It is one of those good neighborhood restaurants you used to be able to find all over the city. We had met for an early lunch.
I had just been introduced to Susan’s beautiful new granddaughter (whose mother I had taught) when two women walked into the small, uncrowded space. I could feel the adrenalin rushing to every corpuscle as I leaned across the table to tell Susan who had just arrived in the restaurant. And then, I froze. The hostess was leading Billie Jean and her friend to the table next to us. Right next to us. Oh, my God! My heart lurched. She’s coming this way!
And the next thing I knew, Billie Jean King was sitting on the banquette seat. Right next to me. Like, maybe, an arm’s-length away. I had never been so completely starstruck. But, I realized, so was her friend — with the baby. She oohed, aahed, cooed, and asked all the right questions about this sweet little girl. At that point, the waiter arrived.
“Are you ready to order, ladies?” he asked, his gaze sweeping all of us, as if we were a party of four. And, suddenly, we were exactly that: a party of four. Talking, laughing, sighing — as if we had known each other for twenty years and hadn’t seen each other for ten.
I had been one of Billie Jean’s most loyal fans for fifty years. But now, I found myself looking at her in a completely different way. What a warm, gracious, totally accessible woman–who seems to actually enjoy meeting her fans. Well, actually, she seems to just enjoy meeting and talking to people in general–of all stripes. She is genuinely interested in others and what they do, think, and feel. She’s just…well, totally down to earth–real. And a lot of fun.
The time came for me to get myself moving toward the matinee I was to see, but while I didn’t want this time to end, departing gave me the opportunity to say something I’d always wanted to say to my idol who has done so much for so many–just “Thank you.”
“Want a picture?” she asked. Oh, be still my beating heart…
So, when I heard that a new movie was coming out about Billie Jean in her legendary Battle of the Sexes match with that obnoxious little troll, Bobby Riggs, I headed for the internet to figure out when it would be coming to a theatre near me–so I could be first in line for my discounted senior ticket. (Oh, I’m sorry. I guess my comment about Riggs could be considered disrespectful…sorry, trolls.) No movie can possibly do justice to either that event or Billie Jean herself. But I’m applauding–for all that she has done and continues to do for sports, for women, and social justice.
Okay, Billie Jean, if you can say that it was your respect for Riggs that led to your being able to beat him, I guess I can “go high” myself. Sorry, Bobby.
Sue has enjoyed collecting and sharing BOLLI Matters for the past two years and hopes that BOLLI readers are finding our items to be both interesting and entertaining.
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