Billie Jean king doesn't have a life, she has episodes. At 47 she is still a simmering little mass of brunette, all horn-rims and broad gestures and bawling voice, searching out her next true calling or her next topic for public lecture. When asked to list her profession, she doesn't know what to put down. Bold adventurer? Talented observer? Influential person? Finally, she shrugs and writes, "Self-employed."
She is as daunting and revelatory as the headlights of an oncoming car. Her eyes suggest burning glass, her mind a nuclear reaction. "I have my own order," she says. "I see the big picture first and go backwards to execute it." What she would really like to put down as her life's work is "pioneer." That is probably most accurate. "I'm proud of that," she says. "I've come to see the value of it."
She is the most formidable and versatile female sports figure of her generation, tirelessly whirling through careers. But for all the things King was, is and might yet be, her real talent is perhaps in something much more ordinary—and traditionally underpaid. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she says.
To call King a coach is too simplistic. She is selective about her pupils. She chooses them as much as they choose her. "I'll only work with the smart ones," she says.
Her protégée for the last two years has been 34-year-old Martina Navratilova, perhaps the greatest woman player who ever lived. This year King has also taken on 30-year-old Tim Mayotte, a onetime Top 10 player who has tumbled in the rankings to No. 90. While most other former champions dabble in broadcasting and lounge at the fringes of the game, King is working as hard as ever at its center.
She does more for Navratilova and Mayotte than analyze their strokes and formulate strategy—although she certainly does that, usually beginning her day at 6 a.m. by watching videotapes while riding her stationary bicycle. She has an academician's love of theory, an innovator's urge to experiment and a psychologist's desire to shore up human frailties. She is a little bit her pupils' mother, a consoling voice on the phone in the first hours after a loss. "She knows what I'm thinking," Navratilova says. "I ask her, 'How can you know that?' " And she is a bit of a gym teacher with a stopwatch, reminding the players that their days are numbered and they have to pick up their feet.
"You've got about five minutes left, each of you," she tells them. "So you better enjoy every second."
The Beauts, King calls Navratilova and Mayotte. She might also call them her hobbies. King works with the two players on what she calls a "full-time part-time" basis, as a remarkable supplement to Navratilova's full-time coach, Craig Kardon, and Mayotte's hitting coaches, Chris Pucci and Jeff Arons. For $1,000 a day from each player, King will spend about 75 days with one or both of them this year. "My bonus is when they hold up trophies," she says.
For two weeks earlier this year, Navratilova and Mayotte submitted to King's ministrations at the Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago, working four hours a day in preparation for the new season. They're planning another joint session in May on grass at Hilton Head, S.C., to work toward the players' common goal: winning Wimbledon.
It has become a collaborative effort, this lively class of two in King's private academy for the gifted and aging. Navratilova welcomed Mayotte's company and the training-camp atmosphere. "It takes the heat off," she says. "I'm not the only one doing something wrong."