“I DIDN’T want to make Regis look bad!” said tennis ace Billie Jean King. “I didn’t want to make Billie Jean look bad!” said TV’s Regis Philbin. Both these “champions” were speaking sotto voce as they humorously replayed the famous Billie Jean-Bobby Riggs match of 35 years ago. (That anniversary happens Sept. 20, when Billie Jean gifted Riggs with a pig and then beat him while the world watched. Nothing has been the same since.) We were at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where the U.S. Open was playing. Regis appeared in immaculate tennis whites, swinging his racquet (sometimes throwing it, in a pretend fit) and he kept yelling for Billie Jean to “Come and take me!” as he blustered around insisting he was a killer at the net — there to take revenge. He insisted he’d win in a replay of the “Battle of the Sexes.” Billie Jean finally sauntered on the court wearing a white shirt and navy blue sweat pants. She didn’t bother to defend herself much. She just laughed. These two then whipped a few balls around, and the crowd went wild. Billie Jean took it easy; she hasn’t been on a court in a few weeks, as she is recovering from the removal of several stomach polyps. “I can’t do exercise or sit ups at this time!” she said, “but I’m OK.” Regis “won” the match and he is actually a good player. He also managed to get on tape the episode, which ran on the “Live with Regis and Kelly” TV show last week. Later that same night, Regis was a guest at Billie Jean’s box. She autographed her new book to him, writing inside, “I let you win!” This threw Regis on the floor.
BILLIE JEAN is busy these days with ongoing philanthropies. Her book “Pressure is a Privilege” was co-written with sports writer Christine Brennan and boasts a preface by Holly Hunter. She was eager for me to tell people that when the U.S. Open isn’t playing, the courts in the Stadium are open to the public. “A lot of people don’t seem to know this is a public park.” Billie Jean wants you to check your attics and garages and offer up old sports equipment to encourage children to play. This is a woman who won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed titles plus a record 22 championships at Wimbledon. She was ranked No. 1 five times. She’s been up; she’s been down; she has persevered. She will be named a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2009.