Tennis great Billie Jean King expects smash hit at Petersen Event Center


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Billie Jean King isn't holding a grudge.

The tennis legend, 68, remembers playing World Team Tennis at the Civic Arena during 1974-76, when she was a member of the Philadelphia Freedom.

"The fans were terrible to me when I played there, but I didn't mind. I really loved it," said Ms. King, laughing. "I just loved it."

Those were the days of dashing young Pittsburgh Triangles star Vitas Gerulaitis and his legion of fans, the "G-Men," of Aussie star Evonne Goolagong and Kim Warwick and Rayni Fox.

Mylan WTT Smash Hits

Where: Petersen Event Center, Oakland.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Tickets: $40 to $125; www.wttsmashhits.com or ticketmaster.com.

Owner Frank Fuhrer's "Tris" were here for just three, successful seasons and then dissolved, but World Team Tennis makes a splashy return Tuesday at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland.

The 20th annual Mylan WTT Smash Hits begins with a sold-out $500-a-ticket pre-match reception/silent auction featuring Elton John, Ms. King, Franco Harris and Anna Kournikova at 5:30 p.m. The main event is at 7, and proceeds from the evening benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.

Two teams coached by Mr. John and Ms. King and featuring a cross-generational lineup of stars including Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Andy Roddick, Martina Navratilova, Christina McHale, Taylor Townsend, Jan-Michael Gambill and Samantha Crawford will play a WTT format match.

Having the headquarters of Smash Hits' title sponsor Mylan in Pittsburgh is meaningful to the series, said Ms. King. "They really have been active in this situation; a lot of companies just give you the money."

Since its inception in 1993, the once-a-year event, which has been held in a variety of cities, has raised more than $10.5 million for Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities.

"For the fans, it's a great situation," Ms. King said. "You go away saying, 'God, that was great, that was fun.' But you also did something to help make a difference for others."

There will be one set each of men's and women's singles, doubles and mixed, with no-ad, cumulative scoring and sets decided by first-to-five-games with a 9-point tiebreak at 4-4.

The Triangles were one of 16 original WTT teams, reaching the league semifinals in 1974 with player/coach Ken Rosewall and in 1976. In 1975, Pittsburgh won the title in a best-of-three series against the San Francisco Golden Gators.

Unlike some celebrity tennis matches, Ms. King said, this is hardly hit-and-giggles.

"We ask the players to play tennis," she said. "Some people go to these matches for charity and the players don't really play. Ours is just the opposite."

Those who know the career legacy of Ms. King realize there was rarely room for frivolity. Back in 1970, she and eight others -- Rosie Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Julie Heldman, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville and Kristy Pigeon -- set the foundation for the first women's professional tour.

The Women's Tennis Association would become official three years later. These trailblazers risked exclusion from professional tournaments and no one was more of the face of the WTA than its former president Ms. King, who would finish her career with six Wimbledon singles titles, four U.S. Open singles titles, one each at the French and Australian and a boatload of Grand Slam doubles trophies as well.

Even her 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" victory over Bobby Riggs struck a serious blow to male egos everywhere.

As far as Ms. King is concerned, the history of the WTA is still being written by its current tour players, who participate in mentoring sessions each summer at the U.S. Open.

"They're from different generations, but the main thing about this is how they want to shape the future. History, to me, is a call to action."

lifestyle - sportsother

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published October 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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