Billie Jean King Cup celebrates its 60th anniversary at 2023 Finals11/11/2023 10:44
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Billie Jean King Cup and down the years there have been some stunning moments which live long in the memory
By Molly McElwee
At the Estadio de la Cartuja's fan zone, there is a wall of fame depicting the Billie Jean King Cup winners of years gone by.
Framed photographs, beginning in the monochrome tones of the 1960s, moving along all the way through to 2022, with the triumphant Swiss team sporting their Billie Blue Tory Burch winners' jackets. Each and every image tells the story of what has become one of women's sports most enduring and largest team events.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Billie Jean King Cup, and the woman it was subsequently named after remembers the week it all began very well.
It was a rain-drenched June day at the Queen's Club, London in 1963 when 19-year-old Billie Jean King formed part of the first ever USA team. Reflecting now, she says becoming the inaugural champions remains one of her proudest moments.
It may have been soggy weather and play had to be moved indoors, on what King describes as some of the slickest courts she had played on, but it was special. "Sixty years ago, it’s gone by like that!" she tells billiejeanking.com, clicking her fingers. "So fast. I’ll never forget how excited I was.
"My team-mates Darlene Hard and Carole Caldwell were with me. We went indoors to play the whole week. The boards were so fast, but I loved playing for my country. This was an opportunity to play for something bigger than myself. The very first one in 1963 at Queen’s Club we had 16 teams. We’ve had 134 countries this year."
King, Hard and Caldwell beat out the 15 other teams to lift the cup after overcoming Margaret Court's Australia 2-1 in the final. Those beginnings set the foundations for what is now the largest annual international team competition in women’s sport.
Over the course of 60 years, players ranging from 12-year-old Denise Panagopoulou of Greece and Bermuda's Gill Butterfield, who took to the court aged 52, have competed in the competition.
Twelve different nations have won the event before – and there is still a chance we could have a new winner tomorrow.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is the Billie Jean King Cup's most prolific player of all time, with a record 100 matches played, scoring 72 wins. King is the most decorated though, amassing 10 titles as a player and team USA captain.
Among all the jubilant victories and crushing losses, there have been poignant, memorable moments for some of the sport's greatest champions too.
In 1986, 59-time major champion Martina Navratilova famously returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time since she defected 11 years prior. She wiped away tears as her birth country's national anthem played, and she prepared to represent her adopted home the USA. She won both her singles and doubles matches to help the USA defeat Czechoslovakia 3-0.
Three years later her long-time teammate, friend and fellow legendary player Chris Evert helped the USA win the Cup in the final match of her entire career. It was her eighth Billie Jean King Cup title, to add to her 18 major singles titles.
More recently in 2020, the event was renamed in King's honour and, two years later, the competition made history in achieving equal prize money with the Davis Cup for the first time, thanks to title sponsor Gainbridge.
"One of the questions I ask companies now is do you spend as much on women’s sports as men’s sports?" King says. "Most of the time it gets very quiet and they say, 'you know what, I’ve never thought about it'.
"But Gainbridge has thought about. And they do what they say. So that’s the reason our players get the same amount of prize money as the Davis Cup players. It’s sending a message that we’re all in this world together. I think that’s what’s really important."
This past season, 623 players have been nominated to represent their nations in the Billie Jean King Cup, and all do so with an extra motivation to win than the day-to-day Tour matches they play. Though there have been rebrands and much progress over six decades, that overarching feeling of playing for national pride has never changed.
Looking back, King says her best moments were not winning her 39 Grand Slam titles, but team tennis representing the USA. "Probably my greatest thrills have been playing for my country," King says.
"I know most people think it’s my singles. It’s not. It’s playing for my country, playing mixed and doubles, and then singles is my least favourite – though I still love it."
The 12 players who arrived in Seville hoping to make their Billie Jean King Cup debuts this week held the same dreams as King and her colleagues did in 1963. For Kathy Rinaldi, it has meant so much to her to be the USA captain, that she could barely talk about her decision to step down this year, struggling to hold back her tears and emotion during her press conferences.
France veteran Alize Cornet can relate. "I'm always super proud to represent my country, and the fact that it's an only-women event makes it super special," she said.
"It's not a mixed event. It's not a Grand Slam. It's the World Cup for women. And I think that's really great for women’s tennis and for just tennis in general.”
Canada's Rebecca Marino says King's legacy makes the event even more special: "What she's done is trailblazing, her along with the Original 9, to create a tour like this for women's sport, and to be a leading support for women professionally is really incredible.
"She's still breaking a lot of barriers, not just in tennis, now she's supporting women's sport as a whole. I think we can all aspire to be like her currently and in our future."
In between Saturday’s semi-final ties, Billie Jean King and ITF President David Haggerty were joined on centre court by five-time Spanish champions Conchita Martinez (2023 Finals Tournament Director) and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario for a short interview about their illustrious careers.
Haggerty presented each of the Spanish duo with a framed photograph of themselves celebrating victory over Italy in the 2001 first round Billie Jean King Cup (then Fed Cup) tie in Bari, as a token to recognise their achievements in the competition and their passion for representing their country.
Billie Jean King was also presented with a framed image of herself competing in a Fed Cup tie in 1976, to recognise her monumental and ongoing influence on the competition and women’s sport as a whole.