Famous Mentors and Mentees III - The Privilege of Pressure

A glimpse into one of history’s most competitive mentor-mentee relationships.

By Nick Norman

If you had to reach inside your hip-pocket and pull out the name of one of the world’s most prolific tennis players (man or woman), chances are, Serena Williams would come to mind — and for good reason.

With more Grand Slam single titles than any other woman or man during the open era (23), it would be hard to argue against Serena’s case for being one of our earth’s all-time greats. Now, who do you suppose helped Serena Williams get to the top rung of the ladder? Lean in close so you don’t miss her name.

Her name is Billie Jean King: the woman who mentored and helped pave the way for Serena Williams to reign with her racket. She also happens to be considered one of the the best tennis players ever — with 39 titles and a #1 ranking to boot. But wait, there’s more….

If Billie Jean King’s stats don’t grab your attention, maybe this will. In 1973, Billie Jean King squared off against former #1 ranked tennis champion Bobby Riggs, in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match. The match took place at center court at the Houston Astrodome and wrangled in 90 million viewers. On that day, Billie Jean King easily put down Bobby Rigs in one of the most famous events of all time!


The Guardian: Battle of the Sexes chronicled the early days of the WTA tour and the fight by Billie-Jean King, left, for equal prize money which led to her facing Bobby Riggs for $100,000. Photograph: Bettmann Archive


Despite Billie Jean King’s success on the tennis court, she endured a tumultuous career filled with prejudice and bouts with inequality. In 1955, she was excluded from a group photo of junior tennis peers because she wore tennis shorts that day — not the traditionally worn tennis skirt. Those brash experiences pushed her out on a quest to reform women’s tennis while mentoring players like Serena Williams from around the world.

In ‘Serena’, a documentary produced by EPIX that explores the private life of Serena Williams, Billie Jean King is taped meeting with Serena after a tennis match. During the EPIX moments captured on video, Billie Jean King tells Serena… “[P]ressure is a Privilege.” Serena responds… “I’ll never forget that.”

A successful mentor strives to influence both the humanity and skill of their mentee. Billie Jean King did that by pushing open doors for Serena Williams to play the game, and elevating her game on the tennis court.

In an on-the-court interview, at the 2019 Australian Open, Serena Williams said…

[Not] just women, but all of sports really owe everything to Billie Jean King. Everything she’s done for us; demanding equal prize money, demanding equal pay…[that] makes me want to focus on what I do off the court.

Serena went on to say, “What can I do to help these [tennis] players coming up… [getting] to know Billie Jean King on a personal level has been really inspiring.”

The fact that Serena aims to empower younger players is a testament of her genuineness and the impact Billie Jean King has in her life. In fact, after witnessing Serena Williams win her 23rd Grand Slam title, Billie Jean King spoke these words… “To us, there’s one word that defines a champion — Serena.”

Header Image Courtesy of: Sports Illustrated

This blog post is written by Ye! Community Contributor, M. Nick Norman and can also be found on his Medium Page.

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