NEW YORK, Nov. 21 -- Twenty-five years ago, when Billie Jean King was the face of women's tennis, a tobacco company with a catchy slogan put its weight behind her and its belief that her sport could catch fire. Two and a half decades later, King is being joined by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and virtually all of their greatest retired contemporaries on a seniors tour to be backed by their original sponsor, Virginia Slims. The division of Philip Morris that from the start marketed itself to women with the 'You've Come a Long Way, Baby' campaign, Virginia Slims has begun a new commitment with the creation of the Legends Tour. The announcement was made in New York one day before King's 51st birthday and one day after the company ended its 25-year run as the main sponsor of the women's professional tour. Evert, elected team captain by the players, said the first word that popped in her mind was 'fun!' 'Then I saw the names Hana Mandlikova, Evonne Goolagong -- all the players that gave me fits,' said Evert, who went on to promise to strike for a balance between fun and competitiveness. 'Chris and I have been hitting in Florida,' Wendy Turnbull said. 'It gets quite competitive.' With a lineup of names that laid claim to 600 titles and 70 in Grand Slam doubles and singles, the tour has two added features: AIDS as a charity and music as a complement. The corporation made an initial contribution of $75,000 to the National AIDS Fund to celebrate the tour's launching.
Gladys Knight, Barbara Mandrell, Regina Belle and Martina McBride will perform Friday night concerts to kickoff Legends weekends on the inaugural circuit of Tampa and Delray Beach in Florida; Charlotte; Houston, and Richmond, Va. A test run last year featuring Navratilova and Tracy Austin among others was a resounding success. Evert, King and Navratilova -- who retired from major competitive singles last week at the final Virginia Slims Championships -- were joined at the news conference to announce the Legends Tour by a baby boomer's Who's Who: Rosie Casals, Frankie Durr, Austin, Virginia Wade, Turnbull and Betty Stovall in addition to Knight and Mandrell. 'Someone calls me a legend?' Knight gushed. 'I don't know what the criteria is but I've been around forever. We're gonna have so much fun!' Evidently. King pulled out a sweater from her closet from the days of the original Virginia Slims circuit. Acrylic, striped and loud with its 'You've Come a Long Way' slogan and patch, the sweater was ultra 1960's-ish -- and tiny. 'I could fit half of me in it,' joked King, who said she and Casals have begun training. Evert praised the generosity of their sponsor -- sort of. After making reference to the loaded Harley Davidson motorcycle that Virginia Slims gave to Navratilova as a retirement gift, Evert said, 'I got a video... . But there're no hard feelings. It made me feel a lot better when Billie Jean said she got nothing. She has a sweater.' Ina Broeman of Philip Morris said there are no plans for television coverage but that individual promoters will run the events. As it did with the professional tour, Virginia Slims will act solely as a U.S. sponsor. Durr, one of Casals' doubles partners and the winner of 40 titles and seven majors, is from France and is active with the French Tennis Federation. She agreed that the concept could hold huge appeal internationally. Stovall lives in Belgium. Wade, an adopted New Yorker, was Britain's No. 1 player for more than a decade. Austin appreciates that this tour will make Australia's Goolagong visible again. 'The players are not too much of a problem to get,' Durr said. 'It is getting a major corporation to sponsor.' Each event will include 12 players competing in a round-robin format. With Navratilovaand Evert aboard, there is always the possibility of this taking off the way the PGA Seniors Tour did with the help of Arnold Palmer's popularity. 'You've got to see my game,' cautioned Evert. 'These cities we've named are starving for tennis.... The tennis being good can be a key. Big names are good for drawing a crowd but the very important issue will be the standard of tennis. There's a little pressure on us.'