If one were to make a laundry list of the things Billie Jean King has achieved in and for tennis, it would be hard to decide which accomplishment tops it.
The American icon has not only been instrumental in reforming tennis as a sport with her tireless fight for gender equality but also blazed a trail by her exemplary work for the feminist movement and the LGBTQ community. She was the guiding force behind the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association, pioneered equal prize money at Grand Slams and made possible a legislation called ‘title IX’ that prohibited educational institutes from discriminating on the basis of gender.
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To many, King is most popularly known for the winning the Battle of the Sexes, beating the trash-talking Bobby Riggs in 1973 in a match that was watched by a television audience of 90 million and had far-reaching effects for women’s equality.
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It was the most significant milestone in a chain reaction of events that led to the revamp of tennis for women players, spearheaded by the strong-willed American.
King’s is a story of not just challenging or overcoming odds but shattering them with word and deed. The obstacles she surmounted were not physical or financial, but intangible. It challenged the more deep-rooted mindset of people. It is a story of doggedness and belief that has inspired countless women and athletes to fight for their rights and not settle for anything less than what they deserve.
Her profile on the International Tennis hall of Fame website reads as follows, encompassing the full scope of her work and impact:
The record 20 championships won at Wimbledon.— via the International Tennis Hall of Fame
Defeating Bobby Riggs in the famed Battle of the Sexes.
The first woman in the history of sports to win $100,000 in a single year.
Being one of nine women to form the Virginia Slims tour.
Becoming President of the Women’s Tennis Association.
The first tennis player named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and the first female to ever receive the honor.
Being one of the first female athletes to disclose her homosexuality and champion LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights.
The founder of Women’s Sports Magazine and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year.
Having the site of the US Open renamed in her honour: the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, in 2009.
With her pioneering work in the socio-cultural field, it’s sometimes easy to forget that King was a terrific tennis player as well.
In her career, she won 12 singles titles, 16 women’s doubles and 11 mixed doubles titles at Majors and her total of 39 titles is behind only Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova. In the Open Era, she has eight titles (the seventh best in history) along with 129 singles titles, 62 as an amateur and 67 on the WTA Tour.
“Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to,” she famously said.
She was also a supporter of the move to make the game “open”, which allowed professional and amateur to compete together and helped players to make a living out of the sport.
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But it was her work for the sport off court that elevated King to legendary status.
The story on her website says that at the age of 12 she experienced that kind of discrimination women athletes faced — when she was barred from a group photo of junior tennis players because she had decided to wear tennis shorts that day, rather than the tennis skirt. The incident shaped a lot of her personality.
In 1970, she was one of nine women who, in protest against the glaring difference in prize money between men and women, rebelled and created their own tennis circuit; the Virginia Slims Circuit, which was a precursor to the WTA. Knowing full well this meant they will be banned from competing on the pro tour – the US Lawn Tennis Association making it clear that they would be suspended – they joined the tour with a symbolic $1.
King later said that her original plan was to have a body to represent all players but this drastic move was in part because of rejection from the male players who were forming their own pro body and severely disrespected her attempts to join.
“Some of the male players were planning to form a professional organisation. “You are going to include us, aren’t you? she asked. “And they said: ‘Absolutely not.’ I said OK, but I went back to them more than once, and some of them said: ‘Nobody would even pay a dime to watch you girls,’” – she pauses – “’you birds’. That was really not fun. And these are my friends, you know? I really loved them. I still love them today, but it was very heartbreaking.”— The Guardian
In 1971, she became the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money but when she won the 1972 US Open, her prize money was $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Nastase. That prompted her to say that she and other players would boycott the tournament if they didn’t fix this disparity. In 1973 the US Open became the first of the four Majors to have equal prize money because she found a sponsor. (But it was only in 2007 that all four Slams had it.)
That was the year of the famed Battle of the Sexes, which brought the full spotlight on the issue of sexism in the field.
Riggs, former world No 1 and self-proclaimed ‘male chauvinist pig’ (a phrase he proudly wore and promoted) boasted that he could beat then-29-year-old King, even when he was 26 years older than her at 55, because women’s tennis was inferior.
King would have ignored his rants as she had earlier rejected his offer, had it not been for the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre’, where Riggs beat Margaret Court, a top player at the time. It emboldened him to push his sexist agenda and King has often said that she knew she would have to play and beat him if she had to improve the sport.
Played at the Houston Astrodome, it was one of the most watched televised sporting events of all time. The match was made into a spectacle by the media who gave it its famous title and Riggs, who treated it like a carnival with fancily dressed women to carry him and men lifting King in a chariot. But he was soundly beaten by King 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 which gave her movement the global shot it needed.
“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”— via Billie Jean King's website
From then on the good fight was fought and that flag is carried to this day by women athletes, from the Williams sisters ensuring equal pay at Wimbledon to Megan Rapinoe standing up to Donald Trump. It all traces back to the one woman who refused to take discrimination in her stride and did something to change it: changing America’s, and indeed the world’s, attitude towards women’s sport.