Game, Set, Match: How Billie Jean King Won the Battle Against Her Aging Knees
King won 39 Grand Slam titles (and the famed Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs), but she couldn't play tennis any more — until knee replacement surgery allowed her to return to the sport that she loves.
By Sharon Tanenbaum
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During the Wimbledon tennis tournament last summer, Billie Jean King broke the rules. She, along with a few friends, snuck out to hit the ball around on one of the famed grass courts in the All England Club, where she had won 20 titles.
For the last five years, cripplingknee painhad sidelined King from the game that had defined her and given her a platform to empower and engage women around the world, but at that moment on Court 16, she felt confident, healthy, and strong.
That’s because four months earlier she had undergonedouble knee replacement surgeryin hopes of removing the painful obstacle that stood between her and her beloved tennis game. As she stood on the greens at Wimbledon, ball and racquet in hand, she was ready to take her new knees for a very familiar spin.
“I remember the feeling so clearly — how stable my knees were,” King says. “I could not believe my balance and my stability. Just when I hit that first ball, I couldn’t believe it. I could actually hold my position now, whereas before I was in misery.”
The 67-year-old tennis legend has a history of knee pain almost as long as her prestigious career. Her double knee replacement in February 2010 marked her seventh and eighth knee operations (and first knee replacement surgery) over the last 40 or so years. “I’ve had a lot of pain for a long, long time,” she says. “And now I don’t.”
Why She Went Under the Knife — Again
King hopes that this knee surgery will be the last one she’ll ever need. She received Verilast implants, which are the first of its kind to last as long as 30 years in lab studies (other implants typically last 15 to 20 years). As part of her paid spokesperson duties for the implants, King is sharing her story plus more information at RediscoverYourGo.com.
King is one of hundreds of thousands of baby boomer and older adults who have received knee replacement surgery to helpease arthritis painand maintain an active lifestyle. From 1998 to 2008, the number of knee replacements among Americans aged 45 to 64 more than tripled to about 253,000 from about 70,000, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Among people age 65 to 84, knee replacement surgeries nearly doubled to almost 334,000 from 169,000.
But even with improved technology that makes implants last longer and reduces the odds of needing subsequent surgeries, knee replacement recipients — especially very active baby boomers — have to be careful not to put their new knees through the ringer.
“Patients who distance run, for example, put levels of load on the knees that they’re not designed to hold,” says Jose Rodriguez, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, who performed King’s operation. Instead, doctors recommendlow-impact activitieslike walking, swimming, and dancing. Tennis, too, is safe with your doctor’s permission.
When King first considered having knee replacement surgery, she had one big question for her surgeon: Would she able to play tennis again? When he said yes, she knew it was the right choice. “That’s really what I wanted,” she says, with a sense of relief. “I love hitting the ball. There’s something magical when the ball is coming to you. But it’s not about competing. I care about drills and just getting exercise through my sport.”
Now that she’s completed a year of physical rehabilitation (six months to a year is common after surgery), King is looking forward to getting back on the court regularly and getting on with her life. “Before my knee replacements, my world started shrinking as far as what I could do. Just to go to the gym, which is two and a half blocks away, I had to take a taxi. It was getting to be exhausting, physically and mentally,” King says.
Billie Jean’s New Lease on Life With New Knees
One surprising benefit King’s noticed since the surgery: No more need to constantlyice her swollen knees. “Do you know how much time you spend icing? I was spending a good hour or more a day just icing,” King says. “First of all, you have to find [the ice]. Then you have to have something to put it in. Do you have your Ziploc bag ready? Do you have towels under it for when it drips? It was like, ‘Oh, shoot me.’ Now, though, that’s not part of my life anymore. It’s been freeing and very liberating.”
Her return to the gym and the tennis court has also helped King better control her diabetes. She was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007. “It wasn’t a shock. My blood sugar was starting to increase, so it was really a gradual realization,” says King. Being able to exercise again has helped steady her blood sugar levels.
The Importance of Staying Fit
Now that she’s back to living a pain-free life, King wants to empower other women to keep moving, too. “I think the most important thing is to listen to your body and believe in it,” she explains. “Women have not been taught to trust their bodies, especially in my age group.”
At the very least, King advises women to put on their walking shoes. “Walking is always a good and safe option since it’s not as hard on your body as other activities. But if you love to run, then run. Listen to your body. You may hurt if you do four or five miles, but when you go down to three miles, nothing hurts,” she says. She now prefers to play on softer clay courts because they’re easier on her knees.
And naturally, King says tennis a great sport for women to take up at any age.
“A lot of women who play tennis in their thirties and forties have a lot of mileage left in their legs, so they can run like the wind,” she says, adding that great footwork and hand-eye coordination will serve you particularly well in tennis. “But you don’t have to have any of those things. Just look at someone like Lindsay Davenport, who was a total slow-mover, and she became number one in the world four times.” Even if you’re far from a star athlete, tennis is a great way to spend time with friends and combine a good cardio workout with one that also tones your legs, butt, and arms — not to mention that playing tennis can burn upwards of 180 calories or more in just 30 minutes.
If tennis isn’t your thing, King says the important thing is tofind some fitness activityyou really love — whether it’s swimming, softball, golf, or even a favorite class at your gym — so you’ll be more likely to stick with it, and actually enjoy it.
King’s own personal fitness goal: toget movingmost days of the week for at least 30 minutes.
“Frequency is more important than being a weekend warrior where you’re doing four hours on each weekend day and nothing else during the week,” she says. If she can’t fit in tennis drills or make it to the gym, King will hop on her stationery bike in her New York City home. “If I do half an hour on the bike and do weights for maybe another half an hour, that’s enough on some days,” she says. “Then I’m going to be motivated to keep going back out. That’s what works for me.”
King returns to Wimbledon this year for her 50th straight appearance at the Grand Slam tournament. While taking in the play of this year’s crop of competitors (among her favorites to watch are Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams), she has one other pressing to-do on her agenda: “I’m going to go back and look at Court 16 where I snuck in and hit that first ball [after surgery].
Video: SYND21-09-73 BATTLE OF THE SEXES BILLIE-JEAN KING V BOBBY RIGGS AT TENNIS
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