At 12 years old Billie Jean King was already asking herself where diversity was in tennis. Where were the black players? Where were the women players? She went on to be a massive force for change in the sport and that’s why she’s our Woman of The Week
Billie Jean King, the US tennis legend and the winner of 20 Wimbledon titles, famously beat Bobby Riggs in 1973 for a $100,000 prize in “The Battle of the sexes” after he said to her that men were superior athletes. She said: “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem.”
Billie Jean King (née Moffitt) was born on November 22, 1943. She is the American former World No. 1 professional tennis player that won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles! She broke down barriers in her push for equal prize money for women, and became one of the first well-known openly gay athletes.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born to parents Bill and Betty, an athletic family: Bill was offered a tryout for an NBA team before becoming a firefighter, and Betty, a stay at home mum, was an excellent swimmer. Their second child, Randy, became a Major League Baseball pitcher.
Billie Jean’s early sport was softball; at age 10, she played shortstop on a team of 14- and 15-year-old girls that won the city championship. However, her parents suggested she try a more “ladylike” sport, and at age 11, she began to play tennis on the Long Beach public courts and saved money to buy the first racket of her own.
When she was fourteen years old she won her first championship in a southern California tournament. She began receiving coaching at age fifteen from Alice Marble, a famous player from the 1930s. The product of a working-class family, Billie Jean soon found herself caught up in a country club sport. Despite her success on the court, the fact that tennis was mainly geared toward men would prove a personal challenge to her in later years.
She said: “When I decided I wanted to be number one, that was the second time that I played tennis. It was at the public parks, and I knew I’d found what I wanted to do with my life. By 12 I had an epiphany about trying to change tennis. Because I looked around and I saw that everyone who plays wears white socks, white shoes, a white tennis dress or shorts, and they’re all white. My question to myself, as a 12-year-old, was: where is everybody else? There are no people of colour. Something’s not right.”
In 1961 Billie Jean competed in her first Wimbledon tournament in England. Although she was defeated in the women’s singles, she teamed with Karen Hautze to win the doubles (two-person team) title. In 1966 she won her first Wimbledon singles championship and repeated in 1967. That same year she also won the U.S. Open singles title at Forest Hills, New York.
Never shy about speaking her mind, King jolted the tennis establishment with her views that the sport needed to shed its country-club image and offer equal payouts to both genders. In 1970 she joined the brand-new Virginia Slims Tour for women, and in 1971 she became the first female athlete to top $100,000 in prize money in a single year. But she was furious over the smaller pay earned by her peers.
In 1973, King spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association. Leveraging her position as its most celebrated player, she threatened a boycott of the 1973 U.S. Open if the pay inequality was not addressed. Her demands met, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to women and men.
She famously said: “That’s the way I want the world to look: men and women working together, championing each other, helping each other, promoting each other – we’re all in this world together.”
The following year, King and her then husband Larry King founded the World TeamTennis co-ed circuit. As player-coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, she was one of the first women to coach professional male athletes. She was also the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, World TeamTennis and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
King’s push for equality made her a prime target for Bobby Riggs, the 1939 men’s Wimbledon champion turned self-promoter. The 55-year-old Riggs had assumed an overtly chauvinistic public persona to bait the sport’s top women into playing him, and after he easily defeated multi-time champion Margaret Court in May 1973, he secured King as his next opponent.
Riggs had been a top men’s player in the 1930s and 1940s in both the amateur and professional ranks. He won the Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1939, and was considered the World No. 1 male tennis player for 1941, 1946, and 1947.
Dubbed “the Battle of the Sexes”, the Riggs-King match took place at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973. The match garnered huge publicity. In front of 30,492 spectators and a worldwide television audience estimated at 50 million people in 37 countries, 29-year-old King beat the 55-year-old Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. The match is considered a very significant event in developing greater recognition and respect for women’s tennis. King said, “To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
King’s private affairs were thrust into public view with a lawsuit brought by her former female personal assistant and lover in 1981. The first prominent woman athlete to admit her homosexuality, she became a torchbearer for the LGBT community. She divorced her husband in 1987, and settled into a long-term and ongoing relationship with former player Ilana Kloss.
King announced her retirement from singles play after winning Wimbledon in 1975, but she resumed singles competition two years later and continued through 1983. In the meantime, she remained a force in doubles for many years, winning Wimbledon in 1979 and the U.S. Open in 1980. She continued to play WTA doubles matches sporadically, until retiring for good in 1990.
In an interview that preceded a 2013 documentary about her famous tennis match entitled ‘Battle of the Sexes’, she said: ”Everyone’s an influencer. It’s not only what you do on the court – do you realise how you can affect people in your village, in your town, in your country, in this world? You have a platform that very few people will ever have … You hit a tennis ball with a racquet over a little net, and just think what you can do with that, beyond trying to win Wimbledon.”
So speaks one who knows.
A FEW FACTS
Plays Tennis Like a Man, Speaks Out Like — Billie Jean King. The New York Tmes Magazine recently re-published one of their articles that originally appeared in print on Aug. 27, 1967: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/magazine/plays-tennis-like-a-man-speaks-out-like-billie-jean-king.html
In March 2017, Forty-two years after co-founding World Team Tennis, Billie Jean King announced she will step away as the majority owner of the organisation.
King continues to be associated with the sport as a broadcaster, teacher, and coach. In 1999 and 2000 she coached the U.S. women’s team, whose members included Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Jennifer Capriati, to victories in the international Federation Cup tournament.
Billie Jean and the Philadelphia Flyers were the inspiration for the Elton John song “Philadelphia Freedom.”
King didn’t realise she was gay until 1968 at age 25, after she had already married her college boyfriend, Larry King.
King was outed as having had an abortion in 1971. Her husband, without her approval, told the media, saying she said their marriage wasn’t stable enough for a child.
In 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work advocating for the rights of women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.