Billie Jean King is not only a tennis legend, but a visionary as well.
As early as 1965, King and her former husband Larry knew tennis wouldn't grow with just individual tournament play. Team tennis would be the answer.
"There's a huge contingent of grassroots adult players and that's who we need to reach," said King in a phone conversation from Palm Springs where she was coaching the Federation Cup team. "We need to make tennis fun for the recreational player so they will keep playing.
"We also need to identify the professional with the local players. Tennis needs all of us working together."
Friday, Bardmoor Tennis and Fitness Club in Largo hosted a free clinic for the public with both fun and identity key components. More than 100 local players enjoyed instruction and drills led by tennis greats Wendy Turnbull and Virginia Wade.
The clinic was a prelude to this weekend's Virginia Slims Grassroots Challenge for women at Bardmoor. The Challenge is an amateur doubles competition that advances from local to regional play at Saddlebrook in May and nationals in Delray Beach in December.
The Challenge is part of a three-part effort for sponsors and players. Challenge winners meet for regional play at one of the Virginia Slims Legends Tour stops. In this area it will be May 4-5 at Saddlebrook.
"The Virginia Slims Legends is a great way for us to get together," said King. "For one thing, it makes us practice more; for another, it gives us a chance to catch up with everyone.
"We're part of a team playing and working together and having fun. That's what it's all about."
Legends scheduled to make the stop at Saddlebrook are King, Turnbull, Wade, Martina Navratilova, Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, Rosie Casals, Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison Jackson.
Joining the Challenge and Legends events in the three-part effort is the National Aids Fund. Last year, more than $120,000 was raised along with an increased awareness of the HIV/AIDS issue.
"Being part of a team is very exciting," said Turnbull. "Tennis has been my life and I would like to see team play especially emphasized for the kids, particularly in the 13- to 14-year-old age group. "
Wade sees team play a key factor in the growth of the game, especially mixed-level play among juniors.
"I think if we truly want to see tennis grow, clubs need to be much more creative in their event planning _ have an exhibition, a social and recreational team play. That's what is fun."
King, creator of World Team Tennis for both the professional and recreational player, envisions a serious boost in tennis popularity with a combined community effort similar to the teamwork with Virginia Slims events and the National AIDS Fund.