SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Empowerement fest at Family Circle Cup exhibition, featuring King, Evert, Navratilova and Haley
It all came together Saturday night, a celebration of strong women and great achievements orchestrated with decades of groundwork and divine coincidence at Family Circle Cup Stadium.
They played a little tennis, too.
Former stars Chris Evert and Virginia Wade served as coaches in a madcap exhibition featuring Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis, John McEnroe and Aaron Krickstein. Complete with microphones on the participants.
“Great shot, Aaron!” the famously polite Wade said as Krickstein zinged one past a grunting McEnroe.
“Be quiet, Virginia!” Evert shot back.
The iconic Billie Jean King was front and center at the “40LOVE: A Night of Empowerment” fest. The main court was named for the ex-star and still-active women's rights advocate. King was joined by the other members of the Original 9, women who jump-started what became the WTA Tour with a 1970 tournament in Houston.
Three years later, they played for a then-mega $30,000 first prize on Hilton Head at the inaugural Family Circle Cup.
“I think that's the only tournament where anyone thought about the money,” King, 68, said Saturday night.
Rosie Casals, another one of the Original 9, won the big Family Circle Cup check. “We'd never played for that much,” she said.
‘We're No. 70'
The tennis spirit of empowerment has transcended sport. In Houston and Hilton Head. When the tournament moved to Daniel Island in 2001.
And Saturday night.
It would have been pretty hard in the 1970s — or a decade ago — to expect the election of a minority woman as governor of South Carolina. But there was Nikki Haley, doing the ceremonial coin toss thing for Team Evert and Team Wade.
King, however, isn't happy with equality in U.S. politics.
“Everybody thinks this country is so up there at the top,” she said. “We're not. We're No. 70 in the world, politically. We've never had a woman president. It's pathetic.”
The voters of South Carolina weren't the only ones helping with the empowerment theme.
The 2012 tournament made huge contributions.
Serena Williams' 6-1, 6-1 victory over the very capable Samantha Stosur on Saturday was perhaps the most impressive semifinal win in Family Circle Cup history.
Stosur's three-set win over Venus Williams on Friday was the most compelling quarterfinal match on Daniel Island since Serena fought past Maria Sharapova on the way to a title in 2008.
Serena has made more than $34 million playing tennis.
Casals, 63, made a little over $1.3 million over a career that included 595 singles victories.
She never won more at a tournament than that 30 grand in 1973.
“I bought a Mercedes for $20,000,” Casals said. “A 450SL. And I had $10,000 in the bank.”
The present WTA Tour motto is “Strong is Beautiful.”
Fits now, fit then.
King remains at the forefront, pushing tennis into new and edgy frontiers. She argued for tournaments in the Middle East.
“That's important that we do go there,” King said, “and we're seen and we can start helping change things.”
You should know that Billie Jean isn't always fighting. She laughed her way through most of Saturday evening, completely enjoying her time with the Original 9 and those former players that followed the blazed trail.
The goal, King said: Reach the hearts of fans.
“That's really our job,” she said, “to connect with people.”
Another winning shot from Billie Jean King.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 9t37-5593 or via Twitter @sapakoff