Writing by Alice Fairweather
Personally, I’m not really a sports kind of gal. This attitude probably has something to do with the fact that ever since I can remember, I’ve had the coordination of a baby giraffe, and the athletic abilities of a peanut. But regardless of my own failures in the sporting world, it certainly doesn’t stop me from admiring and appreciating those who were clearly born with incredible talent! There are even those select few athletes who go above and beyond simply using their talent for the sport, and in turn use their status to encourage and promote change for other such causes. It’s people like that who I really admire in the sporting world, as I watch from the sidelines at the incredible impact they make on the rest of the world.
Billie Jean King is one such person.
The (wo)man, the myth, the legend, known formally as Billie Jean Moffitt, was born on November 22, 1943 in Long Beach, California. King’s very first sport was softball, at the age of 10, but it didn’t last too long as her parents decided she try a more ‘ladylike’ sport. So at age 11, she decided to play a game of tennis on the Long Beach public courts, and the rest they say, is history.
In 1958 King emerged as a talent to watch when she won the Southern California championship, then in 1961 she made sports headlines for the first time when she and Karen Hantze Susman, became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles. From 1961 to 1964, King attended California State University whilst continuing to compete in tournaments. During this period she met and married law student Larry King, eventually changing her name to Billie Jean King.
By 1968, King had claimed the world’s No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis, asserting her place among the pros. King competed in both singles, doubles and mixed-doubles tournaments over the next few years, and in 1972 won the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon to claim three Grand Slam titles in one year. Altogether, King won a whopping 39 major singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships, including a record 20 at Wimbledon.
One of the most memorable aspects of King’s career was her victory to tennis champ (and famed misogynist) Bobby Riggs, in the tournament known as ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ (1973). King’s outspoken attitude towards feminism made her a target for the 55-year-old, who claimed that he could “beat any female tennis player in the world, no doubt”. Both athletes took the hype of their match to new levels, as King took the opportunity to enter the court in a gold throne carried in by four muscular men. Riggs rolled out on a rickshaw pulled by a team of women called ‘Bobby’s Bosom Buddies’. As a gift to Riggs before the match, King bestowed him with a pig, asserting his proudly held title as ‘the chauvinistic pig’. But both players were ‘all business’ once they reached the court, with King skilfully beating Riggs in straight sets before an estimated television audience of 50 million viewers. After the game, King acknowledged the overwhelming pressure of competing in such a match, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said. “It was an overwhelming responsibility that would affect all women”. To this day, King is still regarded as one of the best female tennis players of all time. But it isn’t just her incredible skills and talent on the court that makes her as memorable as she is.
One of King’s most celebrated achievements was her strong stance on feminism, and equality in the world of sport. “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.” Certainly not one for keeping her opinions to herself, King shocked the world with her dig at the tennis establishment, stating that the sport needed to shed its ‘country-club image’ and offer ‘equal payouts to both genders’. In 1971 she became the first female athlete to top $100,000 in prize money in a single year, but was outraged at the smaller paychecks received by her fellow female peers. After organising and fronting the first Women’s Tennis Association, King used her position as the sport’s most celebrated female player to threaten a boycott of the 1973 U.S. Open, if the inequality of pay for female players was not addressed. King’s perseverance and determination paid off, as the U.S. Open openly agreed to her demands, becoming the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women!
Following on from her amazing efforts in establishing equality, King also became the first prominent female athlete to come out openly as gay. Unfortunately for King, not everyone was supportive of her sexuality, and as a result, she lost all athletic endorsements. But instead, she gained a new role as an ambassador for the LGBT community both in and out of sport. She eventually divorced her husband, and has been in a relationship with her partner Ilana Kloss, ever since.
Billie Jean King’s personal achievements on and off the court were recognised in 2009, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the tender age of 73, King still uses her voice to silence the haters of this world, making it loud and clear that feminism and acceptance come first and foremost in sport, and in life. It’s clear that the story and journey for Billie Jean King was never just about the world of tennis; it was about striving for equality. Indeed, it is thanks to the work of women such as Ms King, whose determination and perseverance enables us to live in a more equal and inclusive society. We still have a way to go in our fight, but today I would like to acknowledge and say thank you, to the determined young woman who became a champion of change.
“I have a lot to say, and if I’m not no. 1, I can’t say it”. Billie Jean King[share]