Billie Jean King’s accomplishments for tennis, especially on the Women’s Tennis Association, are well known and documented. But her achievements in tennis often gets overshadowed by her incredible activism.
An important aspect of her success in creating a more equal sport for women was that she was an exceptionally talented player who was at her competitive best whenever she was on court. She was one of the first top women players to use a metal racquet frame and the first woman in the history of sports to win $100,000 in a single year. The daughter of a firefighter father and homemaker mother, picked her game from a modest background and became the best in the world.
She knew that her ambition for her career and the sport could only be followed if she let her racquet do the talking before speaking up. “Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to,” she had said. And knowing that she was not only listened to, but also celebrated for her views and work that changed a sport completely, it’s hard not imagine how good a player she was.
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. She also held the world number 1 ranking in women’s tennis from 1966-1968, from 1971-1972, and in 1974.
While it was at Wimbledon that King was her most successful, with a record of 20 titles combined, the American had a special connect with the US Open. Here’s an overview of her performance at her home Slam.
Singles: 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974
Doubles: 1964 (Karen Hantze), 1967 (Rosie Casals), 1974 (Rosie Casals), 1978 (Martina Navratilova), 1980 (Martina Navratilova)
Mixed Doubles: 1967 (Owen Davidson), 1971 (Owen Davidson), 1973 (Owen Davidson), 1976 (Phil Dent)
After winning back-to-back titles in the early 1970s, she threatened to quit the Major with other women players in the organisation she had pioneered if the male and female champions were not paid the same. In 1973, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to men and women – a huge moment for women’s tennis.
Back then, nobody would have imagined that King would have such an impact on the game that the venue of the last Grand Slam of the year will become known as USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in the years to come.
She won the US Open a total four times and her three singles titles in the Open era are behind only Chris Evert, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova – all greats of the game. She also had nine more titles in women’s and mixed doubles.
Billie Jean King in US Open finals (singles)
|Runner-up||1965||Margaret Court||6–8, 5–7|
|Winner||1967||Ann Haydon-Jones||11–9, 6–4|
|Runner-up||1968||Virginia Wade||4–6, 2–6|
|Winner||1971||Rosemary Casals||6–4, 7–6|
|Winner||1972||Kerry Melville Reid||6–3, 7–5|
|Winner||1974||Evonne Goolagong Cawley||3–6, 6–3, 7–5|
King in US Open finals (women's doubles)
|Runner-up||1962||Karen Hantze Susman||Maria Bueno Darlene Hard||6–4, 3–6, 2–6|
|Winner||1964||Karen Hantze Susman||Margaret Court Lesley Turner Bowrey||3–6, 6–2, 6–4|
|Runner-up||1965||Karen Hantze Susman||Carole Caldwell Graebner Nancy Richey Gunter||4–6, 4–6|
|Winner||1967||Rosemary Casals||Mary Ann Eisel Curtis Donna Floyd Fales||4–6, 6–3, 6–4|
|Runner-up||1966||Rosemary Casals||Maria Bueno Nancy Richey Gunter||3–6, 4–6|
|Winner||1974||Rosemary Casals||Françoise Dürr Betty Stöve||7–6, 6–7, 6–4|
|Open Era|| |
|Runner-up||1968||Rosemary Casals||Maria Bueno Margaret Court||6–4, 7–9, 6–8|
|Winner||1978||Martina Navratilova||Kerry Melville Reid Wendy Turnbull||7–6, 6–4|
|Runner-up||1973||Rosemary Casals||Margaret Court Virginia Wade||6–3, 3–6, 5–7|
|Winner||1980||Martina Navratilova||Pam Shriver Betty Stöve||7–6, 7–5|
|Runner-up||1975||Rosemary Casals||Margaret Court Virginia Wade||5–7, 6–2, 6–7|
|Runner-up||1979||Martina Navratilova||Betty Stöve Wendy Turnbull||5–7, 3–6|
King in US Open finals (mixed doubles)
|Winner||1967||Owen Davidson||Rosemary Casals Stan Smith||6–3, 6–2|
|Runner-up||1975||Fred Stolle||Rosemary Casals Richard Stockton||3–6, 6–7|
|Winner||1971||Owen Davidson||Betty Stöve Rob Maud||6–3, 7–5|
|Runner-up||1977||Vitas Gerulaitis||Betty Stöve Frew McMillan||2–6, 6–3, 3–6|
|Winner||1973||Owen Davidson||Margaret Court Marty Riessen||6–3, 3–6, 7–6|
|Runner-up||1978||Ray Ruffels||Betty Stöve Frew McMillan||3–6, 6–7|
|Winner||1976||Phil Dent||Betty Stöve Frew McMillan||3–6, 6–2, 7–5|
In New York, she was up against the best en route her titles in 1971, 72 and 74 in players such as Chris Evert, Rosemary Casals, Margaret Court, Kerry Melville, Julie Heldman and Evonne Goolagong. And with her brand of attacking tennis she flourished on the grass courts that the US Open was played on till 1975. (The US Open changed its surface from grass to clay in 1975 and then to hard court in 1978)
With a height of under 5’5”, her biggest strength was her court speed which made up for her relative lack of reach. Her official website describes her strengths as “unparalleled court speed, forceful net game, and fierce competitiveness.”
She was adept at serve and volley, relying on it in the mid-70s when many focussed on the baseline, her aggressive game at the net and competitiveness made her a force to reckon with. She was also incredibly fit and agile, a fact that helped her win Major titles till 1975, when she was well over 30 years – an age that even modern players have struggled with physicality.
This is how Steve Tignor described King’s game in a profile on Tennis.com, celebrating the 50 greatest tennis players.
“She was an unceasing attacker who used speed rather than stature to cover the net and pressure opponents. She was also a more overtly passionate and emotional player than her most of her reserved amateur-era opponents; she threw herself into every shot, and into every match. But as King showed in her most famous victory, over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, she was also a savvy tactician who could adapt her game to her opponent.”
For those who could not watch Billie Jean King at her prime, here’s a look at her winning performances at the US Open, a chance to see one of the greatest in the game at her best:
Bonus viewing: Billie Jean King at Wimbledon