Billy Jean King has been an inspiration to female tennis players since she famously defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. King was born in 1943 and has spent most of her life in California. She was just as well known as an activist as a tennis player, having founded the Women’s Tennis Association. Furthermore, being the first prominent female athlete to admit to an alternative lifestyle, Billie Jean put herself in under the spotlight. After retiring from tennis, she continued to work in social activism for decades.
Billie Jean King played tennis through high school and won her first singles championship at Wimbledon in 1966. She played each year to defend her title, and in 1967 added the U.S. Open singles championship to her list of accomplishments. She then took the Australian Open in 1968. That was the year that King turned professional.
Particularly well known for her speed, backhand, and net game, King was always expected in the winner’s circle in singles, doubles, as well as mixed doubles tournaments in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 1972 was an exceptionally successful year in that she took the US Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon.
Billie Jean King wasn’t just about tennis. However, her efforts in the battle for women’s rights were specifically related to sports. As a high ranking player, she was well-paid for her efforts, but she saw how little some of her fellow female athletes were getting paid and was constantly horrified by the situation. She was also very much opposed to the country club image of the sport and instead strived for equal opportunities. King even threatened to boycott the 1973 US Open if the pay inequality was not addressed.
King announced to the press that “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.”
The legendary 1973 match against Riggs put her on the map as an example of what a female athlete should be. The fact that she was able to beat the former men’s champion who held the typical chauvinistic male persona of the time symbolized women’s equality in sports. The sportsman had the audacity to enter the court on a rickshaw pulled by a team of women called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” This occurrence perfectly illustrated Riggs’ attitude towards women, and unfortunately, his mentality was shared by men all over the United States. In an act of pure defiance, Billie Jean King got onto the court via a gold litter carried by a team of four muscular men. But as soon as she stepped out of the litter, she was all business. That historical match was watched by an estimated television audience of over 90 million viewers, an incredible number given that not everyone owned a television at that time. Winning that match meant everything to Billie Jean. She was quoted as “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.”
Billie Jean’s accomplishments have gone far beyond the world of tennis. She has been honored by a slew of organizations, her most notable being the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She sat on the board of the Women’s Sports Foundation and also served as an acting director for the Elton John AIDS Foundation as well as the National Aids Fund. King was even named to the US delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.