When she was a kid, her father never let her read her newspaper clippings.

“Why can’t I see them?” she would ask.

“Because that was yesterday,” he would say.

The yesterdays piled up. Past Eisenhower and Kennedy and Vietnam and punk rock. Now they stack from floor to ceiling in her closet, alongside cups and silver trays and winner’s trophies. The early days at Wimbledon. The victory over Bobby Riggs. Nearly 30 years of tennis. All there. All in the pile. All dust collectors now.

“Why don’t you look back?” someone asks.

“Because that was yesterday,” she says.

She sips at a diet soda, a towel wrapped around her neck, her trademark glasses resting on her nose. She is seated in a small meeting room in a Dearborn tennis club, with bowls of potato chips and pretzels on the tables. Out in the hallway are two dozen local members waiting to shake her hand. They have a certificate to present to her.

This is not Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

This is not yesterday.

But then, Billie Jean King, 42, never paid much attention to yesterdays anyhow. A busy schedule ahead “Paris, South Carolina, London, New York,” she says, reeling off her schedule for the next month. One day here. Next day airport. She spends more time in window seats than in players lounges, more time lobbying than lobbing. But tennis, as always, is the benefactor of her efforts.

There ought to be a new rule in sports. Call it the Billie Jean Principle: You play so many years, you reap so much glory, then you’re obligated to give back so many years after you retire. Post-graduate work, so to speak.

Face it. Most big-name athletes hit a peak in both performance and paycheck, and then cash out. They go heavy into mutual funds, buy a condo on the beach, and fondly recall their sport as “something that opened a lot of doors for me.”

King is an exception. She’s gone from smaller tournaments to the biggest tournaments back to smaller tournaments. She is here for the Lincoln-Mercury Tennis Classics at the Fairlane Club in Dearborn (it begins today), which features seven other older players, including Rosie Casals, Vijay Amritraj and Marty Riessen. Winner’s prize: $3,000. No. There are no zeros missing.

“My career has been like the life cycle,” she says, drawing an imaginary arc in midair. “I started out here, at the bottom, crawling like a baby. Then I was lucky enough to become No. 1 in the world, which most people are never going to experience. Then you get older. That’s the downside. But that’s how life is too . . .”

She looks the questioner straight in the eye. One of the greatest tennis players in history, she still maintains the no- nonsense aura of a New York district attorney. You can picture a briefcase in her hands as easily as a tennis racket.

Which is OK. Remember, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, started up a women’s sports magazine, won the “Battle Of The Sexes” match against Riggs, all before she was 35. And while she no longer plays the major tournaments, she’s on a mission again these days, promoting TeamTennis — not just the league, of which she is the commissioner, but the concept.

“The idea,” she says, “is to bring it into the elementary schools, the playgrounds, the colleges.” A grass-roots movement. Make tennis everyone’s game. Boys play girls. Men play women.

Why not? Give something back to the game that made her famous. Leave it stronger than she found it. “And then,” she says, “I can get out.” Tennis without Billie Jean? She takes another sip of soda. She sighs. She wants to go back to school, she says. Maybe take piano lessons. She figures
“two or three years and I can get out of the sport. The concept and the people involved with TeamTennis will be strong enough to go on without me.”

Well. Maybe. It’s hard to picture Billie Jean King ever really out of tennis. She retired once in 1975 and came back the following year. “I don’t believe she’ll really leave,” says Casals. “I think it’s too big a part of her.”

In the meantime, King goes on, playing smaller tournaments, and playing ambassador in rooms with pretzels and potato chips. She is becoming a sort of a racket-swinging Johnny Appleseed, dropping tennis balls across the country and hoping a court full of eager kids pops up. And don’t point out that Johnny Appleseed was a male. What difference does that make?

Tennis has a tough road in this country, because the “major” sports have such a headlock on the American psyche. But you can dance to this: If one day, tennis does become as commonplace as sandlot baseball — for both sexes — you can look up a dark-haired, piano-playing graduate student with a bunch of Wimbledon trophies in her closet.

Hello, Billie Jean? Yesterday calling.

She’ll probably be too busy to take the call.

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