A pair of legends bring out the stars for annual HIV/AIDS charity event

Billie Jean King and Sir Elton John, friends since the early 1970s, created WTT Smash Hits 18 years ago.
Billie Jean King and Sir Elton John, friends since the early 1970s, created WTT Smash Hits 18 years ago. (Jonathan Newton)
By Liz Clarke
Friday, October 8, 2010

They made an unlikely pair: a bespectacled tennis player and pudgy English singer who both struggled with poor vision and weight. She loved his music; he loved the way she competed. (His childhood wish, in fact, was to win Wimbledon.)

Billie Jean King and Sir Elton John were so in awe of each other's talent that they were too shy to introduce themselves, but had to be nudged together, at a 1973 party in Los Angeles.

After both of their lives were touched by HIV/AIDS, the fast friends found a way to merge sports and music to benefit research for the disease that claimed many of their dear friends - in King's case, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS-related illness in February 1993; in John's case, Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who was forced to leave his home town because of the persecution he endured. Like Ashe, White spent his remaining years advocating for better understanding and treatment of the disease.

The idea that resulted is an annual charity event, WTT Smash Hits, featuring some of the sport's more enduring champions squaring off in a World TeamTennis match, with King and John serving as respective team captains.

Now in its 18th year, WTT Smash Hits comes to Washington for the first time on Nov. 15, featuring a star-studded lineup that includes Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, who boast 92 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals among them. Other players on the bill include James Blake and Anna Kournikova. They'll form two teams and play five sets of World TeamTennis. John will also take part in a celebrity doubles match to open the event, which will be held at American University's Bender Arena.

Washington has the nation's highest rate of new HIV/AIDS cases, which is the chief reason for bringing WTT Smash Hits to the city. The event has raised more than $9.6 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local AIDS charities since 1993. This year's beneficiaries are the EJAF and the Washington AIDS Partnership.

"We've been talking about coming here for a long time," said King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles and founded World TeamTennis, the summertime league in which men and women compete in the team format she believes is the key to getting youngsters involved in the sport. "It's an international city, which we like. We have the WTT Washington Kastles here. And Michelle Obama's 'Let's Move' initiative ties into health, and I want to help that locally."

At age 66 and despite knee surgery earlier this year, King remains as kinetic off court as she was on it, lunging from one topic to another with impassioned zeal.

She spoke with pride about the way tennis, over the years, has responded to the AIDS crisis, which she attributed to the profound admiration and respect for Ashe, who contracted the illness while undergoing heart bypass surgery in 1983 before blood supplies were stringently screened.

"When it's personal, it's amazing how much you want to know about things and how much you care," King said. "So that's why we jumped in pretty fast."

She spoke about her 37-year friendship with John, who cheered her on from the players' bench during her World TeamTennis matches for the Philadelphia Freedom in the early 1970s and wrote a song in her honor, by that title, that reached No. 1 in 1975.

Dressed in an Adidas track suit for her train trip home, King joked, "Don't I look like Sue Sylvester?" referring to the evil cheerleading coach from "Glee," among her favorite TV shows. Ever the achiever, King noted that she was president of her high school glee club despite having the worst voice.

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