“What We’ve Done With Reforms Is Making Sure We Have The Platform To Show The ITF Is About Equality”
By Ben Page | November 11, 2020
In late September, the International Tennis Federation unveiled a landmark rebrand of the Fed Cup to the Billie Jean King Cup. The renaming of the tournament after one of the all-time greats of women’s tennis saw tremendous support from players and fans alike, and will make its debut in April 2021.
Here you can read Ben Page’s conversation with Katrina Adams, Vice President of the ITF and Chair of the Billie Jean King Cup, on how the rebranding will help to bring new life to the competition, her life in tennis and how 2020 has impacted both the sport and equality.
Going back to the start, how did you first get involved in tennis as a young person?
Well, when I was six, I stumbled upon the sport as my brothers were in a programme for kids aged 9-18. I was a “tagalong” sister who had to sit outside of the fence for a couple of weeks before I was allowed to join after begging my parents and the tennis instructors to let them know that I was mature enough to be in the programme with the big kids.
When I first hit the ball I fell in love with tennis and I had coaches that thought I had potential who took me under their wing. One thing led to another from winter after winter and summer after summer playing in different programmes and the rest is history.
The renaming falls in line with our ITF 2024 strategy and it’s really about making sure that we have equality along the way.
The first summer I started was in 1975, I was watching Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon against Jimmy Connors. Seeing that match on tv and knowing “Wow, you can do this on television!” was something I think I always had in the back of my mind. But unlike today where kids watch tennis 24/7 and know they want to be a professional from an early age, I was well into my teens when people were telling me that I was good enough.
It started to resonate at 15/16 years old, then playing college tennis at Northwestern University at the age of 17/18 for a couple of years, where I won the NCAA doubles title with my partner Diane Donnelly. I was playing the ITF pro circuit every summer and earning professional ranking points. This gave me the opportunity that when I decided to leave school after playing the Challengers, my ranking was rising and I qualified to play the main draw of the Australian Open in ’88 because of it.
Once you came to the end of your career, why did you want to stay in tennis and make a difference in furthering the sport?
For me, it was a process started as a player on the WTA Players Association Board, followed by the WTA Tour board. Those were opportunities for me to learn the business side of sport, to understand how the sport works, and the opportunities that came with it.
I later joined the USTA board and eventually served two terms as President and Chairman. When I took that role and had an opportunity to use my voice and my vision as to how I wanted to see tennis grow in America.
I had the same interest and desire on a global level with the ITF when I was elected to the ITF board and appointed Vice President. For me it’s about giving back, making a difference. I understand how I got into sport and what a difference sport made for me and I want to be able to provide that opportunity to everyone else who has the desire to learn our sport for a lifetime.
We’ve recently had the renaming of the Fed Cup to the Billie Jean King Cup, how do you think this provides a boost to the competition moving forwards?
First of all the renaming falls in line with our ITF 2024 strategy and it’s really about making sure that we have equality along the way. What we’ve done with reforms, the Billie Jean King Cup, equal prize money, a bigger stage for the players is making sure that we have the platform to show that the ITF is about equality.
When we look at what’s going on globally, you look at the men’s World Cup of Tennis, Davis Cup – which made their reforms and put themselves on a different path – it was time for the women’s World Cup of Tennis to do the same.
To be able to rename it after an icon like Billie Jean who stands up for diversity, equality and inclusion, this is the moment for us. The players are totally behind it, sponsors are behind it, and I’m excited to really get this competition back on the court with the new title.
What do you think that having someone such as Billie Jean King as the symbol for the event means to both the current players but also someone like yourself?
I think for Billie Jean, as she’s a global icon, people might look at her as just being American, but what she’s done is for people in general. She’s all about equal rights, worldwide, the platform that she used was tennis, creating and starting the WTA tour.
Through her Women’s Sports Foundation, everything is about making sure that girls and women have opportunities to succeed and follow their dreams using sport and physical activity.
What she represents globally is equality and I think everyone in the world wants to make sure they’re synonymous with that.
What she represents globally is equality and I think everyone in the world wants to make sure they’re synonymous with that, that’s what Billie Jean King brings both on the court and off the court. When we made our announcement you saw the players on social media congratulating and thanking Billie Jean for what she stands for and how excited they are to be able to compete in the competition that now bears her name.
Are you confident that this rebranding of the tournament will help it resonate with a new and younger audience as well?
Absolutely, because this is about history as well. We’re in our current phase of life but it’s about learning who Billie Jean King is, what she stands for and what she has founded in her lifetime for people like me.
It’s now bringing in a new generation who have not known exactly who she is or what she has represented, and for the sponsors and fans who know Billie Jean King has been that leader for us.
The current players are now using their platform and voice to speak about equality and inclusion such as Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka and Francis Tiafoe. Then you look at the Venus and Serena, the generation before them, and obviously the generations further back, legends like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and more. You can see generation by generation that Billie Jean King is an important factor for all of us today and for future generations too.
BNP Paribas are continuing support the competition, and you have announced deals with Microsoft and Magellan. Do you think that the messaging around the competition as well can bring even greater commercial opportunities to it?
Definitely, by having the queen of equality and inclusion in Billie Jean King being our ambassador and now having her name on the cup. It’s a huge opportunity for sponsors who want to get engaged, I think we have a total of seven main sponsors for the Billie Jean King Cup, five more than Fed Cup had coming into this year.
I think strongly that as we head towards the competition next April we may even get more, the time is now for the world to recognise what the ITF stands for as far as our 2024 strategy and getting us to equal equality within our sport.
What Microsoft has in mind for us as far as analytics on the court and getting that information disseminated is a huge opportunity to make sure that what’s happening on the court is going out in real time.
There’s going be some special stuff done with Microsoft, anytime you have a tech company like Microsoft engaged and involved there are more opportunities to be able to get our message out.
What Microsoft has in mind for us as far as analytics on the court and how we’re using it and getting that information disseminated is a huge opportunity to make sure that what’s happening on the court is going out in real time. People will be able to engage even more deeply than they have in the past with whatever electronic device that they’re using.
Do you think making sense of those data and analytics for the fans at home is key from that as well?
We’ve always had the data and analytics and been fortunate to have multiple platforms over the years that are providing this information, but having a Global Technology and Innovation partner like Microsoft will take analytics to a new level and has really promoted it that much more for us. I believe this is a huge advantage and will engage a different crowd of people who we may not have had as fans before.
It’s been a very wild and tough year for a lot of sports, but we saw three grand slams competed and there’s a few key events left before 2020 is finished, but how do you think tennis has coped overall dealing with the pandemic throughout 2020?
As you said it’s been a tough year for everyone. We postponed many of our ITF events and our World Tennis Tour. This hiatus has affected many professionals in our industry, players’ livelihoods as well as their ability to keep fit have been severely impacted, but we’ve been really fortunate to be in a sport like tennis, that really works together to provide the safe platforms and preserve opportunities for players as far as it is safe to do so.
When you look at the US Open actually happening and Roland Garros actually happening, this gave these players a platform and opportunity to get back on the court. It’s huge. But the ITF is definitely impacted by it, through not being able to provide a number of our World Tennis Tour tournaments for our lower level players who are just turning professional.
The platforms you’ve seen used by many of our players of African American or black descent, it really speaks volumes to show that everyone needs to be treated equally.
Hopefully we will be able to have a robust schedule in 2021 to make sure that our entry level players have an opportunity to play the sport that they love and to be able to make a profitable life from it.
As we just said 2020 is going to be remembered for COVID-19, but another huge theme is the huge attention on race, particularly in America but all across the world as well, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. As a high profile African American figure leading a sport, which is at the elite level, what are your thoughts on how sport as a whole is trying to combat this and what 2020 has meant for that as well?
It’s all about equality as I mentioned, I’m the chairperson of our gender equality in tennis committee and so in 2018 we launched our ‘Advantage All’ programme, which is a pillar of our ITF 2024 strategy.
When I look at what we’re doing for gender equality in our sport, I look at it as equality in so many other levels, which includes race. The platforms you’ve seen used by many of our players of African American or black descent, it really speaks volumes to show that everyone needs to be treated equally.
Hopefully through our ‘Advantage All’ platform and the information that we’re disseminating of so many successful stories from coaches, administrators, players and officials really resonates to the world that tennis is a sport for everyone.
We’re really proud of the trajectory we’re on and that goes hand in hand with what the IOC is doing as well. So that lets us know that we are on the right path globally to be able to promote equality at every level.