The name of Billie Jean King could be familiar to many; this Californian established herself as one of the legends of tennis. However, her legacy isn’t limited to the courts: from the beginning, her irreverence and her decision to raise her voice seeking great changes in the sports industry, and in society in general, have been her distinctive mark.
To honor her career, but especially her fight and the impact she has had thus far, let’s review her story.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born in California in 1943, and she was part of a family of athletes: a swimming mother, a baseball player father, and a brother who came to pitch in the MLB.
Billie Jean was an integral athlete. She took her first steps into softball, covering the shortstop. At age 11 she gave up the diamond for tennis; in part, she was encouraged by her father to practice “more feminine” sports. Either way, she took her first steps on the Long Beach public courts, led by Clyde Walker, who offered free lessons to children.
King was always classified as an aggressive player, even in those early years, which earned her some detractors. This attitude was reflected in everything; for example, there is a story where they did not want her to appear in a photo, because she was wearing shorts – and not the traditional skirt – to a tournament.
A few years later, at Cal State, she met Larry King, whom she would marry in 1965. Although not everything would be roses in this relationship, but that’s another story…
Billie Jean, the tennis player
In her trophy room, Billie Jean King has 129 championships. 39 of those are Grand Slam titles: 12 singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles.
- Wimbledon: 20 championships (singles: 1966–68, 1972–73 and 1975; women’s doubles: 1961–62, 1965, 1967–68, 1970–73 and 1979; and mixed doubles: 1967, 1971, and 1973–74. In the 1961 edition, it was the first time that she attracted international attention by winning, along with Karen Hantz, in the women’s doubles, being the youngest team to achieve the feat at that time. Her title record on British grass was equaled by Martina Navratilova in 2003.
- U.S.: 4 championships (1967, 1971–72 and 1974).
- Roland Garros: 1, in singles (1972).
- Australia: 1, in singles (1968).
Other notable achievements
- In 1966 she was in first place in the female ranking.
- With her performance in 1967, she became the first woman since 1938 to sweep the American and British event by claiming singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in one year.
- She won 7 Federation Cups and 9 Wightman Cups wearing the United States colors, being the national team captain for 3 years.
- After her move to professional in 1968, she was the first woman to earn more than $ 100,000 in one season (1971).
- She was the fifth woman to achieve a «career Grand Slam», winning all four major championships in the same year (singles in 1972). She also did it in the mixed doubles category. In women’s doubles, she was never able to be crowned on Australian territory.
- Between 1959 and 1983, she played 51 Grand Slams, in singles: she was runner-up 6 times; in 27 tournaments she reached the semifinals and in 40 times she advanced to at least the quarterfinals.
- Of her 129 titles, 78 were official WTA tournaments and it is estimated that she earned $1,966,487 during her career.
Billie Jean, the Awardee
Billie Jean King’s career has been recognized countless times, on and off the court:
- She was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
- Since 1980 she has been a member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
- The International Tennis Hall of Fame made her a member in 1987.
- She has been a member of the United States Women’s Hall of Fame since 1990.
- In 1972 she was named Athlete of the Year, along with John Wooden, by Sports Illustrated.
- Time chose her Person of the Year in 1975.
- She has already been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009).
- She was named Athlete of the Year by the Sunday Times, in recognition of her long and successful career. In 2018, the BBC did the same.
- In 2006, the United States Tennis Association changed the name of the venue that receives the U.S. Grand Slam in New York: USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
- She received the Award of Excellence from the Fed Cup in 2010, and since 2020 this tournament is called the “Billie Jean King Cup”.
Billie Jean, the trainer
Since the mid-90s, Billie Jean King has worked as a coach for various Olympic and Fed Cup teams.
Always trying to break barriers, in the 90s, she was also coach for the Philadelphia Freedoms, being the first woman to coach a team of male tennis players.
Billie Jean, the commissioner
There is no space in the tennis business that Billie Jean King has not conquered. The Californian led the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association and the World Team Tennis League, becoming the first woman to serve as a commissioner in professional sports in the 1980s.
She helped set up a tour of her own for women and her efforts were key to funding and getting sponsorship for these events.
Billie Jean, the activist
Billie Jean King has always been committed to fighting for fairer conditions for female tennis players. She is known for threatening to boycott the 1973 US Open, unless the women received an award equal to that of the men; the event organizers agreed and it became the first Grand Slam to adjust its awards system.
Off the court, Billie Jean has also established herself as a voice, demanding for fairness and social justice. She was in the center of criticism many times; in 1978 she admitted a relationship with her former assistant. After that incident she lost deals and sponsorships; she also divorced Larry King (although she would continue using his last name). Subsequently, Billie Jean King publicly embraced her homosexuality and became the first prominent athlete to accept and make public that she was a lesbian.
Until today, King has been an activist for human rights, especially for women’s rights and the LGBTIA+ community. In 2014, she founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, an organization that promotes equality at work.
Billie Jean, the author
The publishing world has also been part of the successes of Billie Jean King. She has published two autobiographies Billie Jean (edited in 1974 and written with Kim Chapin) and The Autobiography of Billie Jean King (from 1982; with Frank Deford).
Two other publications have been signed by Billie Jean: We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women’s Tennis (1988; with Cynthia Starr) and Pressure Is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes (2008; with Christine Brennan).
An additional topic: The Battle of the Sexes
One of the events in Billie Jean King’s career that attracted the most attention was her participation in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes”, in which she faced Bobby Riggs. Riggs, a staunch critic of tennis players and the level of the women’s game, declared that at 55 years old – and already in her retirement – he could win a match against any woman.
Billie Jean declined the first invitation to participate in the event, so Margaret Court – first in the ranking at that time – was the rival, resulting in a victory for Riggs (6–2, 6–1). Later, Billie Jean came to an agreement to face Bobby, in a match that received a lot of attention and publicity. It was even broadcast on national television by ABC, in the prime time. The prize to the winner: $ 100,000 (more than $ 500,000 current)
On September 20, 1973, King and Riggs met at the Houston Astrodome. The victory went to Billie Jean 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of more than 30,000 people in the stadium and an estimated 50 million viewers in the United States and 90 million worldwide.
The event received mixed reviews arguing about the quality of the game, many stating that King’s victory was more a matter of age than gender. However, it had an impact on women’s tennis and the feminist movement at the time.
«It was not about tennis. It was about achieving social change. That was clear to me when I entered the court,» the tennis player said later.
«The Battle of the Sexes» has been an inspiration for various books and texts, either as a central theme or reference. It has also gained space on small and large screens:
- When Billie Beat Bobby (2003): a television movie produced by ABC and starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver.
- Battle of the Sexes (2013): a documentary that was released in theaters and, later, in a DVD version.
- Battle of the Sexes (2017): probably the most famous title, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.