Billie Jean King is an American tennis player who has won a total of 39 grand slam titles during her illustrious career. She is best known for defeating Bobby Riggs in the game that has been dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” and fighting for equality both for women and the LGBTQI community.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. Her father Bill aimed to play basketball professionally before becoming a firefighter. Her mother, although non-professional, was an excellent swimmer and dancer. In this athletic family, it was natural for Billie Jean to be drawn to sports.
Before tennis, Billie Jean was interested in baseball. But she quickly realized that being a professional athlete in the field was not a possibility for a woman. With this disappointment alongside her parents’ suggestion to take up something more “ladylike”, at the age of 11 Billie Jean received her first tennis lesson. She recalls that day as a turning point for her. “I knew after my first lesson what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
In 1958, Billie Jean was already emerging as a talent to watch after winning the Southern California Championship for her age bracket. Only three years later, she found her place in the spotlight when she and Karen Hantze became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles titles.
While continuing to build her career, Billie Jean was also attending the California State University and working as a tennis instructor; getting along with only 100 dollars a week. It was also during this time that she married law student Larry King and became Billie Jean King. Though she soon realized that she needed to focus on her training, after achieving mix results in competitions.
She quickly reaped the results of her strict training regimen. She won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon in 1966 and successfully kept the title for the following two years. During these years, she became renowned for her aggressive and impatient style. She hated losing, she said “Victory is fleeting, losing is forever.” But she would become ecstatic if she hit the perfect shot. “My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful,” King said. “It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”
“My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful. It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”
After her third consecutive Wimbledon win, she became a professional and claimed the spot for world’s number 1 ranking female tennis player. It was also at this moment that she realized the gender inequality in the field. The men’s singles champion of the year had received 2000 pounds as prize, while she had received only 750 pounds. She knew something had to change.
Soon she had became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a single year, though she has not stopped fighting for the smaller paychecks earned by her peers. She negotiated with the tennis associations to include women. When she was declined, she convinced her colleagues to form their own player’s union, which became the Women’s Tennis Association. She also founded Women Sports magazine, dedicated to promoting and enhancing athletic opportunities for women.
In 1972, similarly to her experience in Wimbledon she has received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase for winning the U.S. Open in 1972. But this time, she stood her ground. After declaring that she would not participate in the tournament unless the gender pay gap was closed by next year, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
However, her biggest battle for the equality of women came 3 years after she became a professional tennis player; “The Battle of the Sexes”. Bobby Riggs was a retired Wimbledon champion who claimed that he could defeat the best female tennis player of the time even at the age of 55. And he had his eyes set on Billie Jean King.
At first, Billie Jean refused to participate in this spectacle. She was fighting for gender equality, not for pitting genders against each other. She said “That’s the way I want the world to look: men and women working together, championing each other, helping each other, promoting each other — we’re all in this world together.” But after Riggs proved his claim against the legendary Australia player Margaret Court, Billie Jean King changed her mind. She understood the importance of the match and said “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.”
“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.”
When the time came for the “Battle of the Sexes” King embraced the show and entered the court in a gold litter carried by four muscular men, while Riggs rolled in on a rickshaw pulled by a team of women called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” An estimated 50 million people around the world were watching them.
After having a bad start to the game, King focused even more. Her strategy was to play conservatively and to tire Riggs out. King could sense his biggest mistake. He had not taken the game as seriously as she has. But King still knew that assuming her win would be a big mistake. She said “I always tell everybody: It’s not over until you’re shaking hands at the net.” And when she did shake hands with Riggs, he leaned in and said: “You know, I really underestimated you.”
The “Battle of the Sexes” became a turning point for women in sports and she knew that from the beginning. She said “We were fighting so hard to change hearts and minds about the value of women in society. I felt like everybody was depending on me to beat him.”
After having a legendary career with 39 grand slam titles, King retired for good in 1990. But she remained closely tied to the sport, as a television commentator and as the captain of the U.S. team at the Summer Olympics in 1996 and 2000.
Since her retirement, Billie Jean has also become an active promoter of LGBTQI rights in America and talked about the struggles of being bisexual at the time. She said she wasn’t comfortable in her own skin. “You have to understand—my parents were from the Depression. They were good people, but they were homophobic. We didn’t talk about my sexuality. I was suffering so much.” said King.
However, her prominent position in the LGBTQI community had started in 1981 after her female personal assistant and lover had brought her private affairs to public by filing a lawsuit against her. Billie Jean won the lawsuit and became the first prominent female athlete to admit being bisexual. By the time, there was even a bigger prejudice against homosexuality. And she has lost millions in endorsement deals.
Throughout her life, Billie Jean King broke many glass ceilings and prejudices for women in sports and the LGBTQI community. But she doesn’t think that the fight is over yet. During a recent interview she has said, “Every generation needs to win it over again. We just have to keep forward. And it is up to the young ones.”