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BJK Cup: Billie Jean King on the career moment she’ll ‘never forget’ and the growth of the tournament named in her honor

<i>Lesley Martin/AFP/Getty Images/File</i><br/>
Lesley Martin/AFP/Getty Images/File

By Ben Church, CNN

(CNN) — Billing itself as the world’s largest annual international team competition in women’s sport, the Billie Jean King Cup is akin to the World Cup of tennis, pitting countries from around the world against one another.

Tennis great Billie Jean King lent her name to the tournament – which celebrates its 60th anniversary this month – in 2020 and she has fond memories of playing in it herself.

King helped the US win the inaugural event in 1963, going on to six more titles as a player – including once as a player captain in 1976. She also won three more titles as non-playing captain of the US team.

In an interview with CNN, the 79-year-old King said the switch to representing your country, not just playing for yourself, is a welcome change to players.

“That’s what I like, because I grew up in team sports. It fits my personality and fits how I think about the sport,” King said.

“It’s totally different when they say 15-love to your country, it’s a whole different feeling than hearing just your name.

“You are playing for something much bigger than yourself and much more than yourself. Playing for your country, there’s nothing like it.”

Glittering history

This year, a record 134 nations have slowly been whittled down to the final 12 teams who will compete at the BJK Cup Finals in Seville, Spain, between November 7-12.

Those countries are Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, US, Australia, Switzerland, Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Kazakhstan.

The tournament has come a long way from his first edition when women’s tennis was still amateur and the tournament was contested between 16 nations, with no prize money on offer.

Now, thanks to the efforts from the likes of King, the tournament is contested across the world and has prize money equivalent to that of the men’s Davis Cup.

This year’s event boasts a record prize purse of $9.6 million, with the winner set to receive $2.4 million.

Despite all she went on to achieve in her own career, King said the feeling of winning that very first tournament is one she will “never forget.”

“I just love history and I love the history of our sport, so we had to win the first one,” said King, recalling how she hammered that message home to her US teammates at the time.

“For the rest of our lives, when we see the Cup, we’ll see that we won the first one.”

‘Big plans’

Previously known as the Federation Cup, then the Fed Cup, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) renamed the competition in King’s honor three years ago.

Since then, the 12-time grand slam singles champion has been determined to help grow the tournament’s popularity and said she has “big plans” for the future.

“We started with 134 countries this year and that’s what makes me excited because I want our sport to grow. I want more teams,” King added.

“I always go, ‘how many countries are there?’ And they go 200 and something. That’s how many we have to have.”

Her involvement in the event, which is organised by the ITF, is all about taking the tournament to a new level.

Improving women’s tennis is something King has done throughout her career in the sport. She was pivotal in setting up the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973 and, that same year, beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Since retiring, she has continued to use her platform to fight for equal pay and better conditions for women players.

More than anything, though, King wants this competition, and women’s sport in general, to get more media coverage.

“The media rights are where you make the money, and that’s why the men make so much more money in sports and everything,” said King.

“And so we have to keep pushing for more media because where the media goes, goes our opportunities.

“More and more things are starting to shift since I was young and that’s exciting.”

What’s the format?

The 12 teams – each consisting of five players – in this year’s finals have been split into four round-robin groups, with the winner of each progressing to the semifinals.

Each tie will consist of two singles matches and one doubles match.

However, some of the world’s best players will be absent from the tournament which starts just a day after the final of the WTA Finals, which was moved back a day due to bad weather.

The two highest ranked American players, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, are both absent having played in the WTA Finals in Mexico. Poland’s Iga Świątek also opted not to play.

Switzerland is the reigning champion but will face tough competition in its bid to defend the title.

When pushed to predict her winner of the 2023 crown, King was diplomatic. More than most, she knows just how unpredictable this tournament can be.

“You can’t win just on your own,” she said.

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