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I’ve loved tennis since I was a child and my great grandmother taught me about the game, such was her love for the game she would take her holidays so she could watch Wimbledon. So, when it came to choosing a woman in sport to look at for this month’s post my first choice was Billie Jean King. As a professional tennis player she won 39 major titles, competing in both singles and doubles but more than that she is an activist and all around queen.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November the 22nd, 1943 in Long Beach, California. Her father, Bill was a fireman, and her mother Betty homemaker. Before discovering tennis, Billie Jean played basketball and softball, playing shortstop on a team that went on to win the Long Beach softball championship, even though she was 4-5 years younger than her teammates. At eleven, her parents suggested she find a more “ladylike sport” and when her friend Susan Williams took her to a country club, where she played tennis for the first time, “…Billie Jean knew what she wanted to do with her life.” She worked odd jobs to earn the $8 to buy her first racket and learned the game by playing on the public courts in Long Beach, where professional tennis player Clyde Walker offered free lessons. Billie Jean and her family attended the Church of the Brethren where the two-time Olympic pole-vaulting champion Bob Richards was a minister, and when she was 13 or 14, he asked her what she was planning on doing with her life, and she replied, “Reverend, I’m going to be the best tennis player in the world.”
As much as she loved and excelled at tennis, Billie Jean soon realised that “…the standards for young women playing the game were different than those for young men.” An early conflict came in 1955 when she was taking part in a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis club, and she was barred from being in a group picture because she was wearing tennis shorts made by her mum and not the tennis dress usually worn by female athletes. Billie Jean used “…this injustice and used it as fuel to power both her game and her future social advocacy.” In 1958 she won her age bracket in the Southern California championship and a year later turned pro, hiring Alice Marble as her coach. In 1959, Sports Illustrated called her “one of the most promising youngsters on the West Coast.”
Billie Jean graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1961 and went on to attend Los Angeles State College, where as well as studying she continued to compete in tournaments and worked as a tennis instructor. She left in 1964 without graduating to fully focus on tennis. Whilst at college she met Larry King in a library and the two married on the 17th of September, 1965.
In 1961, Billie Jean received international recognition when she and her partner Karen Hantz became the youngest team to win the Wimbledon doubles championship. After this, “Billie Jean began an intense training regimen so she could maximize her potential” she was successful.
In 1966 she defeated Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney in the semi-final at the Southern California Championships, defeated Margaret Court in the final of South African Tennis Championships, and won the women’s singles in the Ojai Tennis Tournament. In the same year she won the first of her six singles titles at Wimbledon, winning again in 1667, 1968, 1972, 1973, and 1975. This success propelled her to become ranked world No 1 in women’s tennis for the first of five times, she also reached the rank in 1967-1968, 1971-1972, and 1974.
Billie Jean played in singles and doubles and went on to win thirty-nine Grand Slam titles between 1961 and 1979; including a record twenty Wimbledon titles, thirteen US titles, four French titles, and two Australian titles. In 1972, she won the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon claiming three Grand Slam titles in one year. In 1971 she became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money.
Whilst “known for her lightning-fast speed, forceful net game, and fierce backhand…” there is much more to Billie Jean’s story. Away from the court she continued her activism fighting for female tennis players to receive the same prize money as male players. At the height of her career in 1973, she spearheaded and became president of the Women’s Tennis Association and threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless they awarded equal prize to both sexes. As such a sponsor was found and the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money.
In 1973, Billie Jean played in one of the most watched tennis matches to date, when she took on the self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs had won the Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1939, and was considered the World No. 1 male tennis player for 1941, 1946, and 1947. He claimed the women’s game was inferior to the men’s and that “…even a 55-year-old like himself could beat the current top female players…” He had already challenged and beaten Margaret Court 6–2, 6–1 and, although she initially refused, Billie Jean later agreed to play him in a $100,000, winner-take-all match. The match took place at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on the 20th of September, 1973 and was watched by an estimated 140 million people around the world. Billie Jean won 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. She said afterwards, “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,” however, her victory is considered significant in developing greater recognition and respect for women’s tennis.
In 1981, Billie Jean was forced to publicly come out as a lesbian when she was sued by her former assistant and lover, Marilyn Barnett. Billie Jean was playing in a tournament in Orlando when she got the news, initially she denied it and without consulting her, her lawyers issued a statement describing her as “shocked and disappointed.” However, she decided to admit the truth, as she told NBC News in 2017, “I said, I’m going to do it. This is important to me to tell the truth. The one thing my mother always said : to thine self be true.” This would provide her with another first, she became the first prominent professional female athlete to publicly come out as gay. A press conference was arranged for the 1st of May, with her husband, parents and lawyer by her side she addressed the waiting press;
“I felt very strongly about this. I’ve always been above board with the press and I will talk now as I have always talked, from my heart. I’ve always felt it’s important that people have their privacy, and unfortunately someone in my life doesn’t think it’s very sacred. I did have an affair with Marilyn, but it was over quite some time ago . . .”
Much of the press was positive and praised her “bravery and honesty” and many of her fellow players supporting her, however, she lost all of her endorsement deals which equaled around two million dollars. Although they went on to divorce in 1987, Billie Jean and Larry remain good friends, and Billie Jean would go on to find happiness with Ilana Kloss. Despite the public scrutiny and personal challenges she has never stopped fighting for equality.
In 1987, she was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and in August 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY, was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, making her the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor. In August, 2009, Billie Jean was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom,by President Barack Obama for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.
Sport continues to play a big role in her life, in 2018 she and Kloss became minority owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, and the Women’s National Basketball Associations in Los Angeles Sparks basketball team. In 2020, they became part of the ownership group of Angel City FC, a Los Angeles-based team set to start play in the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022. This post does not include all of her charitable work nor her numerous awards as that list continues to grow.
Billie Jean King is one of my heroes, not just because she is a phenomenal athlete and talking about her brings back happy memories of time spent with my great grandmother, but because she has spent her life fighting for equality. Through hard work, talent, and determination she rose to the top and when she got there rather than resting she used her position to improve the game and the world for those that came after her.