Billie Jean King (née Moffitt; born November 22, 1943) is an American former World No. 1 professional tennis player. King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles.
King won the singles title at the inaugural WTA Tour Championships. King often represented the United States in the Federation Cup and the Wightman Cup. She was a member of the victorious United States team in seven Federation Cups and nine Wightman Cups. For three years, King was the United States’ captain in the Federation Cup.
King is an advocate for sexual equality. Then 29 years old, King won the Battle of the Sexes tennis match against the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in 1973, and was the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, World Team Tennis (with former husband Larry King), and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. The Fed Cup Award of Excellence was bestowed on King in 2010. In 1972, King was the joint winner, with John Wooden, of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award and was one of the Time Persons of the Year in 1975.
King also received the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the year lifetime achievement award. King was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
In 1967, King criticized the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in a series of press conferences, denouncing what she called the USLTA’s practice of “shamateurism”, where top players were paid under the table to guarantee their entry into tournaments.
King argued that this was corrupt and kept the game highly elitist. King quickly became a significant force in the opening of tennis to professionalism. King said this about the amateur game, “In America, tennis players are not people. If you are in tennis, you are a cross between a panhandler and a visiting in-law. You’re not respected, you’re tolerated. In England, you’re respected as an artist. In Europe, you’re a person of importance. Manuel Santana gets decorated by Franco. The Queen leads the applause. How many times have I been presented at the White House? You work all your life to win Wimbledon and Forest Hills and all the people say is, “That’s nice. Now what are you going to do with your life?” They don’t ask Mickey Mantle that. Stop 12 people on the street and ask them who Roy Emerson is and they’re stuck for an answer, but they know the third-string right guard for the Rams. I’d like to see tennis get out of its “sissy” image and see some guy yell, “Hit it, ya bum” and see it be a game you don’t have to have a lorgnette or a sash across your tuxedo to get in to watch.”
When the open era began, King campaigned for equal prize money in the men’s and women’s games. As the financial backing of the women’s game improved due to the efforts of World Tennis magazine founder, publisher and editor Gladys Heldman, King became the first woman athlete to earn over US$100,000 in prize money in 1971; however, inequalities continued.
King won the US Open in 1972 but received US$15,000 less than the men’s champion Ilie Nastase. She stated that she would not play the next year if the prize money were not equal. In 1973, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
On Raising Children
Chris Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, has said, “She’s the wisest human being that I’ve ever met and has vision people can only dream about. Billie Jean King is my mentor and has given me advice about my tennis and my boyfriends. On dealing with my parents and even how to raise children. And she doesn’t have any.”
Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was an admirer and close friend. Schulz referred to King several times in Peanuts over the years. In one strip, Peppermint Patty tells Marcie, “Has anyone ever told you that when you’re mad, you look just like Billie Jean King?” This strip was reprinted in The Complete Peanuts 1973–74, for which King wrote the introduction.
By 1968, King realized that she was interested in women, and in 1971, began an intimate relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. King acknowledged the relationship when it became public in a May 1981 ‘palimony’ lawsuit filed by Barnett, making King the first prominent professional female athlete to come out as a lesbian. King said that she had wanted to retire from competitive tennis in 1981 but could not afford to because of the lawsuit.
She said, “Within 24 hours [of the lawsuit being filed], I lost all my endorsements; I lost everything. I lost $2 million at least, because I had longtime contracts. I had to play just to pay for the lawyers. In three months I went through $500,000. I was in shock. I didn’t make $2 million in my lifetime, so it’s all relative to what you make.”
Medal of Freedom
King played a judge on Law & Order on April 27, 2007, and appeared on Ugly Betty in May 2009.
On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work advocating for the rights of women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. “This is a chance for me – and for the United States of America – to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country and of all countries”, President Obama said.
What a Full Life and It Is Not Over Yet
How much time do you have left in your life? No matter how much or how little time you think you have, no matter what personal challenges you face, you can make a difference. Yes, you, one single person. Get to it.
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- Pioneer Billie Jean King Moved The Baseline For Women’s Tennis (npr.org)
- Billie Jean King’s Historic Win Still Making Waves (abcnews.go.com)
- Serena Williams, Billie Jean King join Michelle Obama to promote youth tennis (thehill.com)
- Billie Jean King’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ Win Reportedly Rigged (abcnews.go.com)
- US Open stadium to have roof by 2017 tourney (kansascity.com)
- ‘Battle of the Sexes’ Turns 40 (keepingscore.blogs.time.com)