written by Annette Parson
Billie Jean King was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. A natural athlete, she began playing tennis at the age of eleven and, by the age of fifteen played in her first Grand Slam tournament at the U.S. Championships, losing in the first round. In her tennis career, she went on to win twenty Wimbledon, four U.S Open, and three World Team Tennis Championships, and is considered by many to be the greatest woman athlete of her time.
Billie Jean grew up in an era when tennis was generally considered an elitist game, because access to quality courts and instruction were usually only available with a country club membership. Her father a firefighter, and her mother a homemaker, Billie Jean learned to play on the public courts of the city of Long Beach. For that reason alone, her tennis career could be considered remarkable, but it is what she accomplished for women on and off the courts that in the final analysis outshines her success as a tennis champion.
King was a professional tennis player, who as a woman earned less for a major win than the men. When she won a major title in 1971, she earned $15,000 less than the men’s champion. In 1972, King declared she would not play the following season unless the women’s winnings were equal to the men. The following year, the U.S. Open became the first tournament where there was equal prize money for both genders.
One of the most famous events in tennis was the so called “Battle of the Sexes”. More a publicity stunt than anything else, this was a match played in 1973 between King and male tennis pro Bobby Riggs. Riggs was a tennis star in the 1940’s, at one time seeded the #1 player for three years. At the time of the match Riggs was 55 years old, and King was 30. In a televised match, King beat Riggs in straight sets. It was a major sensation, and is considered to have brought more interest to women’s tennis than any one event or any female tennis star up to that time. To the general public, especially many girls and young women, the win by King against a male tennis pro was an empowering event.
Off the courts, King testified before Congress in support of Title IX, which became a federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in educational programs and activities, this including equity in sports, for any educational institution that received federal funds. She was also instrumental in supporting and promoting the first women’s tennis tour, known as the Virginia Slims. In 1973, King was the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), a women’s players union, and in 1974, she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation to “advance the lives of girls and women through sport and physical activity”. She is currently still very involved in the foundation.
King opened doors for women in many ways. In her playing days, she refused to be relegated to the second tier in terms of earnings, and it is directly attributable to her that to this day women’s prize money in tennis is equal to the men. She realized that Title IX was important in providing equal opportunities for girls in education and sport, and supported that belief through her testimony in Washington. What King can teach us is to believe in oneself, don’t accept second best, and more importantly, pay it forward.
In 1990 Billie Jean King was named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Life magazine.
Resources for further study:
Book by Joanne Lannin, Billie Jean King: Tennis Trailblazer