Billie Jean King: Equality from the tennis court
As an icon of the tennis world and the first openly gay athlete, Billie Jean King was able to wave the flag for women’s equality by winning a single tennis match.
This was because Billie showed that women can– and do– some things better than men by beating Bobby Riggs in a much-publicized tennis match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Billie Jean King: A rising star
Born on November 22, 1943, Billie Jean Moffitt grew up in Long Beach, California.
Her family was sports-inclined, with her father Bill, having once been offered a tryout for the NBA, while her mother, Betty, was a swimmer. Randy, her brother, became a Major League Baseball pitcher.
Though she first started with softball at the age of 10, her parents urged her to try a more “ladylike” sport like tennis and she started playing the sport at the age of 11.
By 1958, her star was on the rise when she won the Southern California championship. In 1961, she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles titles.
She took up her studies at the California State University in Los Angeles from 1961 to 1964, but was still competing in tournaments and working as a tennis instructor.
During this time, she married law student Larry King.
Billie Jean King: Burning bright
After an intense period of training, she won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon in 1966 and was able to defend it for the next two years.
She won her first US Open singles championship in 1967, and the Australian Open in 1968. That year, she achieved the world no.1 ranking in women’s tennis
By 1972, she managed to win the US Open, the French Open, and the Wimbledon for three Grand Slam titles within a year.
During this time, she also fought with the tennis establishment for equal payout for both men and women, and threatened the boycott of the 1973 US Open if this wasn’t addressed.
The US Open relented and they became the first major tournament to award an equal prize money.
She spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, co-founded the World TeamTennis co-ed circuit with her husband.
Billie Jean King: Her greatest battles
In 1973, 55-year-old Bobby Riggs from California, the 1939 men’s Wimbledon champion, started challenging tennis’ top women players to play against him.
To promote his matches, he once said: “Number one, the woman should stay in the bedroom. Number two, they should get to the kitchen. Number three, they should support the man!”
Riggs beat the Australian tennis player Margaret Court in May and took on Billie in September at the Houston Astrodome, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes.”
Before an estimated TV audience of 50 million viewers, Bilie beat the guy in straight sets to win the grand prize of $100,000. But this was more than just the money.
“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 said after.
The New York Times agreed, saying in an editorial at that time that with a single tennis match, King was able “to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.”
She finally retired for good in 1990, having won 39 major singles, doubles and mixed-dobules, and a record 20 at Wimbledon.
Her private life was later thrust into the spotlight when a former lower– a female personal assistant– sued her in 1981.
This made her admit being gay in public, which cost her a number of endorsements. Having come out, she divorced her husband in 1987 and settled into a relationship with another player Ilana Kloss.
“I didn’t get comfortable in my own skin until I was 51 about being gay,” Billie said.