One of the most visible tennis legends at the United States Open has been Billie Jean King, for whom the tournament venue is named and who hasn’t competed in a Grand Slam event since 1983.
Late in what the Open bills as Fan Week, during qualifying rounds, King headlined a well-attended panel discussion for the first-ever Pride event on the tournament grounds, in conjunction with the King’s Leadership Initiative. Afterward, she posed for more selfies than any phone can hold.
On Monday, as the tournament opened, King was the star of a news conference to publicize the unveiling of a statue of Althea Gibson outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. That evening, she was the main speaker in the ceremonial tournament kickoff before the night program began.
Her pervasiveness was well planned.
“At the majors, it’s more and more of everything, so more people are focused on you, whatever you’re doing,” said King, who across the decades has championed women’s empowerment and gay rights. “It’s a great time for you to get your message out.”
Messages and memories are facets of the Grand Slam experience that set it apart from other sports events, which welcome back legends but not with such dependable regularity — four annual reunions of multigenerational champions and luminaries of diverse standing.
Turn on the television, peek into courtside player boxes, drop in on a corporate-sponsored event or — specifically on the grounds at Flushing Meadows — just take a stroll. It is difficult to overlook the past intermingling with the present.
In the opening days of this year’s tournament, the ESPN cameras repeatedly zeroed in on a downcast Pat Cash, a coach and a one-time Wimbledon champion, as CoCo Vandeweghe, his current charge, lost in the first round. Another past Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic, trailed after Novak Djokovic, the current men’s No. 1, as a member of his team.
Amélie Mauresmo — a Wimbledon and French Open champion and more recently a barrier-breaker as a woman coaching top-rated men — rushed by a reporter to prep Lucas Pouille for his first-round match, begging off an interview request. Boris Becker and Mats Wilander, with 13 Grand Slam victories between them, were around the media center and players’ lounge, as they often are at the Slams.
And then there are the stars-turned-commentators — John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who are as recognizable to young fans as they are to the older generation.
“I didn’t think I was going to be hanging around the sport as much as I am, but I also didn’t think I would still be playing on the tour when I was almost 39,” said Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst. “You just have this wealth of knowledge, and it’s nice to be able to share it and pass it on.”
But for most of the former stars engaged in coaching or talking tennis on television, the Grand Slam leaves little time for socializing, or even dinner outside the venues.
“There’s no time at all, with the late-night matches,” said ESPN’s Pam Shriver, who ranked as high as No. 3 in singles and won 21 Grand Slam doubles titles with Navratilova. “But I’m here to cover tennis, and I’d just as soon be working than having a meal in the city.”
As with other sports, tennis’ most decorated retired players have struggled to persevere as coaches, which requires subjugating one’s ego in deference to the contemporary star’s. But Becker did have a productive run coaching Djokovic, and Ivan Lendl was widely credited for helping Andy Murray win Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open.
In his time on tour with Murray, Lendl said he had not returned to be seen or to relive past successes as an eight-time Slam champion. He was all business — as he was as a player — but he could spare a few minutes for a chat with friends and foes, even with McEnroe, with whom there was no love lost in the simultaneous primes of their careers.
Asked if he had come to know Lendl better during their post-playing years around the Tour, McEnroe said: “Oh, I knew him when I played — I just didn’t like him. But the bottom line is one word: respect. To me, we’re a fraternity, whether you liked him as a player or not, and as you get older, and you see a guy like that around, that makes it all better, a lot easier to talk to someone 20 or 30 years later.”
Never one to embrace the status quo as a player or a commentator, McEnroe wondered why there weren’t more former champions frequenting the slams.
“I mean, where’s Sampras, where’s Connors — Borg, even?” he said, referring to Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.
All have made occasional appearances in retirement, as has Andre Agassi, who recently began working to help Grigor Dmitrov revive his sagging fortunes. For about two years, Connors coached Andy Roddick, who played a legends match during Fan Week but mostly left tennis behind in 2012 and has said he has no interest in returning in any capacity.
King, 75, attends every U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
“Still being part of the family and active in it is very important,” King said. “I started going back to the French, which I really enjoy, and I want to go again to Australia because I have godchildren there.”
On her last trip to Melbourne in 2018, she was honored by the tournament but caused a stir at a news conference when she said that Margaret Court’s name should be removed from one of the main courts because of her derogatory comments about gay and transgender people. It was another example of King using a Grand Slam platform to speak out on social issues.
If feelings are occasionally bruised by the commenting greats of yore, overall their presence is seen as a positive for today’s players, said James Blake, who retired in 2013 after reaching No. 4 in 2006 and works for Tennis Channel.
“Some things change — I didn’t have to worry about social media when I was coming up and neither did Goran or Becker and a lot of the other guys that are still around,” he said. “But there are also many similarities, the same pressures that the young players have to deal with — and some do a good job of reaching out.”
Becker, 51, now the head of German tennis, has in recent years become something of a cautionary tale on the inherent pressures of tennis stardom that can have lasting effects. A Wimbledon champion at 17, he has struggled with financial problems he has attributed to the price of fame but has found his post-playing time around the game to be “night and day, a whole different perspective”— enlightening and ultimately liberating.
“If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have won less because it’s politics, politics, politics — which is part of the business but which gets complicated,” he said. “So I enjoy being around the slams now because I still love the game — but to be quite honest, I’m also very happy to go home on Sunday night.”