Billie Jean King’s Pressure is a Privilege is a genuine and heartfelt sharing of her philosophies on life all set within the framework of her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, the battle of the sexes that set the record straight for the hundreds of thousands who watched the game: women play sports as seriously and with as much entertainment value as men. Her recollections of that match, including being carried in on a golden litter held aloft by athletic young men, the rigorous training schedule she worked out with coaches, her mental preparation, and why she took on the challenge in the first place, was great stuff to read. It’s too easy to forget what King lays out in this book: that in the early 1970s women were paid little as tennis professionals, received none of the financial or institutional support in sports that men of equal talent did (in high school, college, or beyond) and that “women libbers” was still widely viewed as an epithet, not a compliment (I fear we’ve come a bit full circle on that one).
King took on Riggs’ challenge to play against him (just months after he’d wiped the court with Margaret Court) to provide support for the Title IX legislation being fought out in Congress, as well as to bring attention to the women tennis circuit started as the Virginia Slims Tournament and to offer proof that people would come out to see a woman play tennis, enjoy themselves, and be impressed by the ability and tenacity of a woman. She achieved all that in her spectacular win over Riggs, and then continued on her trajectory of bringing tennis and fair play into the everyday life of millions around the world. She has been a consistently human and humane ambassador for her sport and her gender.
Although I usually prefer my life lessons n the form of a good book of fiction,Pressure is a Privilege is an extremely readable and non-preachy exposition of her very solid ideas. Young people — still open to clear and simple messages — would especially benefit from her insights into goal-setting, determination, and integrity. Her book should be mandatory reading for all young athletes and their too-often overbearing parents in how it prescribes taking personal responsibility, maintaining perspective, planning and executing goals, and respecting elders, history, and family. Divas will not be tolerated but there is no condemnation in this book and no diatribes, but also no holier than thou stuff. King is a real person with her own issues that she does not try to hide: instead she uses her own battles as examples.
Each chapter is titled with a category of advice and finishes up with an encapsulation of the lesson. For example, the second chapter is presented under “Lessons at the Dinner Table” and ends up with five basic rules: “Be polite; Show respect to yourself and others; Listen to and engage your elders; Give to those less fortunate than yourself; Show gratitude.” Simple stuff but strong because the chapter itself included a sharing of King’s life, moments from herself, that make the argument cogent and persuasive. “See it Happen to Make it Happen” gives guidance on setting goals and meeting them, again simple stuff but not simplistically presented. King understands, she has been there and she has helped hundreds of others who have been there: her advice is not talking through her hat but real stuff, straight from the racquet.
What she says about pressure being a privilege is applicable to many aspects of life. As she says, being a parent is a privilege but it is marked by pressures of trying to do the best for your child, giving up certain liberties and freedoms in exchange for the joy of seeing your child flourish. Having a great job is a privilege but comes with pressures of performance; being a good friend takes some work but the joys of companionship are worth it.
I have had the privilege of meeting King several times (and the pressure of nerves) and she really is a warm and kind person (nerves wiped away with one smile). As she says in the book, she greeted me with “Hi, I’m Billie Jean” and then she engaged me fully in a conversation about the amazing strength of my two-year old in pushing his stroller all the way up a hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a feat she’d witnessed. Pressure is a Privilege contains all her warmth, and more; it shares in simple and engaging prose her years of thinking about how to live well and fully, for herself and for others. Good thinking, and good advice from a great woman.