“Tennis was not my primary. It was my secondary. It was my platform to try to help equality”. Billie Jean King devoted her entire life to levelling the playing field. Nobody pushed her to tennis in the working class Moffitt family in Long Beach, California.
Her brother, Randy, became a baseball player. Her mother pressed Billie Jean to stop playing football and find a more ladylike pastime. Billie Jean took her first lesson at 12: "I knew I'd found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life". Billie Jean bought her first racquet with her own money.
She slept with it at night. It was not her lover, but the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That night, for the first time, Billie Jean Moffitt dreamt of winning Wimbledon. The first realization came in 1961, as she claimed the maiden Grand Slam doubles title at the Championships.
She was, Frank Deford wrote, a "chubby little thing with the hideous, tacky glasses". As a young girl, Kathleen "Coach" Kemper, the founder and CEO of the non-profit Institute For Education, remembered in a Fortune article, “she had tennis shorts on at a tournament and was told to get out of a photo because she did not have a skirt on.
It was moments like those that drove King to want to be the best in the game, so that she could change the rules”. The rules started to change after her second singles match as a pro. At Wimbledon, Billie Jean Moffitt, later mrs.King, the greatest advocate for gender equality, faced Margaret Court, later mrs.
Smith, the loudest pastoral voice for anti-gay marriage in tennis history. King won 1-6 6-3 7-5, then went on to claim six titles. The eadline Ace King Queen was born. “Billie Jean is more than a tennis champion; she is an icon in the truest sense of the word,” said Katrina Adams, USTA Chairman of the Board and President. “Her courage and her vision are unparalleled.
Because of her more of us have had the opportunity to realize our dreams”. It was not, and never would be, about the millions. It was, and always would be, about the message. When she was 12, King recalled in a discussion held this year for th Wall Street journal + members, “I had this epiphany when I was daydreaming out at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
I started thinking about tennis and how small it was. Everyone who played was wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes playing with white balls. Everyone who was playing was white. I said to myself, where is everybody else?". Los Angeles, wrote Emily Mortimer, is like a beauty parlor at the end of the universe.
A beauty parlor full of sailors. And when Jack Kramer hosted what would now be known as a combined event, the circus was in town. The 1971 Pacific Southwest Open ended dramatically. Billie Jean King was playing her longtime friend and doubles partner Rosemary Casals, always believing that winning tournament was a way to be accepted.
During the first set tiebreak Bettie Chamie, a line-judge from Pacific Palisades, took a harshly contested decision, and not for the first time. King asked the umpire John Coleman to replace her. But she was a volunteer, Coleman did nothing and Kramer hadn't elected a supervisor for the tournament.
King and Casals left the court creating the first double default in a tennis final. Kramer retained their prize money, a tribunal decided they were entitled to receive the amount reserved to losing finalists and fined both for that precise amount.
“Kramer simply doesn't like women's tennis” King started to believe. That thought remained with her during the Battle of Sexes, the match that Bud Collins once described as “roughly equal parts tennis, carnival and sociological phenomenon” and a “shlockathon that meant nothing and yet it meant everything”. Bobby Riggs was a 55 chauvinist, who famously stated that “a woman's place is in the bedroom and in the kitchen, in that order”. He had beaten Margaret Court, but he wanted to challenge the women that changed tennis forever, sure that, if he could care himself, he could beat those girls forever.
When King entered the Astrodome on Houston in front of the largest crowd ever registered for a tennis match on a feather-adorned raft carried by shirtless boys, she was already leading a larger life role. And everything had started there, in Houston, only three years before.
In 1970, when cigarettes could yet be advertised on tv, Philip Morris chose an essential pay-off to promote the Virginia Slims: “You've come a long way baby”. It will soon become a manifesto. Billie Jean King was starting to protest against prize money inequalities.
The the men would take 10, 11, 12 times the women's purse. And in many competitions, women weren't even given the chance to play. She lobbied to create a women's professional tour. Gladys Heldman, editor of the influential World Tennis Magazine, was a friend of the Philip Morris's CEO and persuaded him to sponsor the tour.
The Virginia Slims Tour was born. The first star included King, her friend Casals, Heldman's child Julie, Judy Tegart Dalton, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Kerry Melville Reid. They became the Original Nine pictured holding the symbolic $1 they were being paid to join the tour.
They played the first tournament on 23 September 1970, in Houston. King knew they were taking a massive risk to be suspended, but they went on as a team. In 1971, before the double default, she had asked Kramer to raise the prize money for the women's event, but she had refused.
That year, King became the first women to gain 100,000 dollars in a single season. President Nixon personally called her to congratulate. He would have approved in 1972 stating "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education programme or activity receiving federal financial assistance".
A legacy much more lasting than the effect of the presidency-defining Watergate scandal. In 1972, when the Title IX passed into law, King won the Us Open. Nastase gained the men's title and 15,000 dollars more than her. A new battle was on the verge.
King, the most regognized women's athlete threatened to boycott the 1973 Us Open edition, which became the first Slam ever to assign an equal prize money for the men's singles and the women's singles winner. When she came into the Astrodome, Billie Jean King was also the WTA founder and first president.
In June that year she got her colleagues in a room, at the Gloucester Hotel in London, just before Wimbledon, told the future Championships finalist Betty Stove to lock the door and emerged clutching legal documents that were drawn up by her then husband Larry King.
"We finally all came together as one voice and having the power of one -- you know just one group. It made such a difference," King told CNN. The rest is history. In Houston King had won the first edition of the actual Wta Finals, whose trophy is more than properly entitled to her.
The ABC acquired the rights to broadcast the Battle of Sexes and chose Jack Kramer to be a commentator. King told the network that if Kramer was calling the match, she would not be playing in it. King won that battle and came onto the Astrodome wearing a posh creation of Ted Tinling, the famous designer who on the morning of the match, the designer holed up in his hotel room, stitching rhinestones and sequins on the dress. "I had gotten used to wearing dresses and I thought I looked better in dresses, actually" King said.
But she firmly refused one of latest Tinling suggestions: facing Riggs in the reigning color of gender stereotypes. "I would never," she says, "have worn pink." King beat Riggs though many years later a former golfer confessed to ESPN that Riggs, a longtime hustler, would have bribed the match and lost intentionally in order to repay a reported $100000 gambling debt to the mafia.
King has always refused the accusation. A Hall of Famer since 1987, King won 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women's doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. She completed her career with a 695-155 win-loss record and 129 titles, 67 won in the Open era, in singles.
was a member of the victorious United States team in seven Federation Cups and nine Wightman Cups, playing her last competitive doubles match in 1990, partnering Jennifer Capriati in a second round loss to to Brenda Schultz-McCarthy and Andrea Temesvári at the Virginia Slims of Florida tournament.
Of the many things that Billie Jean King has accomplished in her life, World Team Tennis has always remained her most utopian vision, one of the few leagues in which men and women compete on the same team together. "Equal pay, equal treatment, equal respect.
Equal everything, you see?" King likes to say. Last March, the 73-year-old King sold her majority stake in the league to venture capitalist Mark Ein, owner of the WTT's Washington Kastles franchise, and Fred Luddy, a software company founder who owns the San Diego Aviators.
“If you watch a World Team Tennis match, you see my philosophy on life” she wrote on The Players' Tribune. “It's men and women on the same team, equal contributions by both gender. And when the children come out to watch, he or she sees the socialization among us.
They see us working together. And we're in this world together, men and women, and we need to champion each other as humans. And it's very, very important to do this”. She came a long way, baby.