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Like every facet of society, athletics has unfortunately seen its fair share of inequality and discrimination. Few athletes in history have been capable of overcoming harsh realities and making a major impact to reduce inequalities in the sport they love. Billie Jean King, however, is clearly one of these athletes who has been able to do so. Her continual fight against discrimination has in many ways helped shape the modern era of tennis, and has lead many in the sports world to follow her lead in the fight against inequality.
Born on November 22nd, 1943 to parents Bill and Betty Moffit, Billie Jean was a clearly exceptional athlete from birth. Sports ran in Billie Jean’s blood, as her parents competed in basketball and swimming on an elite level, while her brother played in the MLB for a number of teams. Enjoying a variety of different sports during her grade school years, Billie Jean was first introduced to the sport of tennis by her good friend Susan Williams. Immediately entranced by the feeling of the ball blasting off her racquet, King quickly realized her love for the game, telling her mother “I am going to be number 1 in the world someday.” The country club society that dominated the game of tennis, however, was going to be more difficult for Billie Jean to come to terms with.
In 1955, while competing in an amateur tournament at just 11 years old, King was not permitted to join a picture with the other athletes because of her attire. Instead of wearing a traditional tennis skirt for women, Billie Jean wore shorts made by her mother Betty. Though clearly disheartened and frustrated, Billie Jean used her emotions to fuel her game, and from that moment forward, she was determined to change the way women in the game of tennis were viewed.
King first made an impact on the national level when she won her age group at the Southern California Championships for amateurs in 1958. The following year, at only 16 years old, King turned professional and stepped under the tutelage of Alice Marble, a former tennis great. Attending California State University from 1961-1964, King continued to hone her game while working herself through her college education. Having won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1961 with Karen Hantze Susman, King was ready to pursue individual success on the world stage when she graduated.
Shortly after graduation, in 1966, King traveled back to Great Britain for a shot at the Wimbledon crown. In a stunning display of determination, the still very young Billie Jean won the championship, and soon after the title of No. 1 player in the world, just as she had promised her mother so many years ago. Billie Jean would not stop there, however, winning both the U.S. and Australian Open Titles, along with repeating at Wimbledon two more times before the end of the decade. Over the next 12 years, Billie Jean would hold the No. 1 ranking 6 times, and amass over 39 World Grand Slam titles. During all of her incredible success, however, it became increasingly clear to Billie Jean how much inequality continued to plague the game she loved.
Battle of the Sexes and Making a Difference
Although Billie Jean King was making more money than any other female athlete in the world, the disparity between her and her male counterparts was staggering. In 1972, When King won the U.S. Open Title, she took home winnings of $15,000 less than the male winner, Ilie Năstase. Understanding her position as one of the uniquely greatest tennis players in the world, King made a move to establish the Women’s Tennis Association, and subsequently became its first president. This group made its upmost priority to achieve financial equality at major levels of tennis.
In 1973, Billie Jean King would take part in one of the most significant sporting events in history, agreeing to battle former world great male player, Bobby Riggs in what became known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” This match offered a lucrative winner takes all $100,000, and any and all advertisement possible was employed leading up to the match. Riggs, a self proclaimed chauvinist, held the opinion, as many of his colleagues did, that women’s tennis was innately inferior to that of men’s. Billie Jean was determined to prove him wrong.
The match took place on September 20th, 1973. King arrived to the court as Cleopatra might, being carried by men on a throne, while Riggs arrived clad by models and a Sugar Daddy Jacket. Though light hearted in their approach to the game, the match soon became heated, as Riggs discovered the match was not going to be as easy as he anticipated. King had studied Bobby’s game, particularly his tactics against Margaret Court the year prior. Billie Jean was content to play a defensive style, running back and forth and tiring the much older Riggs. Slowly but surely the plan worked, as Riggs became frustrated and tired, more susceptible to errors. In front of a worldwide audience of 90,000,000, Billie Jean would defeat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The match still holds the record of most viewers in the history of tennis.
A Continued Fight and Legacy
At the peak of Billie Jean King’s influence and fame in 1981, it was made public that she was a lesbian. She subsequently lost all of her endorsement deals and was in many ways shamed away from the sport she loved. Unwilling to back down as always, King continued to be a major voice for both women and now the LGBT community from that moment to present day. In 1987, King was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and the USTA National Tennis Center in NY was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in her honor in 2006. In August of 2009, Billie Jean King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her public work on the behalf of women and the LGBT community.
Truly unrelenting, Billie Jean has transcended the sport of tennis and has seen no bounds on the effect of her influence and public works. A woman of inspirational character, King continues to fight boldly in the name of equality to this day.Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.