International tennis star Billie Jean King (born 1943) did much to win equal treatment for women in sports.
Billie Jean (Moffit) King was born on November 22, 1943, in the southern California city of Long Beach. Both she and her brother, Randy, who would become a professional baseball player, excelled in athletics as children and were encouraged by their father, an engineer for a fire department.
Billie Jean developed an interest in tennis at an early age and saved money to buy her first racket. When she was 14 years old she won her first championship in a southern California tournament. The product of a working-class family, she soon found herself enmeshed in a country club sport. Despite her success on the court, the fact that tennis was oriented toward and dominated by men would prove a personal challenge to her in ensuing years.
In 1961 Billie Jean competed in her first Wimbledon tournament in England. Although she was defeated in the women's singles, she teamed with Karen Hautze to win the doubles title. In 1966 she won her first Wimbledon singles championship and repeated in 1967. That same year she won the U.S. Open singles title at Forest Hills, New York.
Billie Jean Moffit married attorney Larry King in 1968 and turned professional the same year that the championships at Wimbledon were opened to professionals as well as amateurs. That year she won both the women's singles and doubles. In 1971 she became the first woman athlete to win more than $100,000 in a single year. It was 1972, however, that would be King's banner year. She won the Wimbledon women's singles, the U.S. Open singles, and the French Open. (These three tournaments plus the Australian Open now constitute the "Grand Slam" of tennis.) For this feat, Sports Illustrated magazine named her "Sportswoman of the Year," and Sports magazine deemed her "Tennis Player of the Year."
In 1973 King again won Wimbledon's singles and doubles championships. It was then that she began to openly criticize the scanty prize money offered to women competitors. She noted that women were receiving far less than men for what she considered equal ability and effort. Her efforts in this concern led to the offer from a major U.S. drug manufacturer of a sizable sum of money to make the purses at Forest Hills equal for both men and women.
King's career coincided with the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. Her working-class upbringing in southern California and the perceived slights she experienced as a professional appeared to make her a natural spokesperson for the movement. Her status as a leader in the feminist cause reached a zenith in September of 1973, when she faced the 1939 men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised match at the Houston Astrodome. King easily beat the aging Riggs and emerged as the winner of what had been billed as the "Battle of the Sexes." (Riggs died in October of 1995 at the age of 77.)
In 1975 King won her sixth Wimbledon singles championship, but she announced that she would no longer compete in major events because of recurring injuries to her knees. In all she won a record 20 Wimbledon championships (singles, doubles, and mixed doubles).
Today, women competing in professional athletic contests owe much to Billie Jean King. With her outstanding play and aggressive attitude, she earned them the right to compete for the same money prizes as men.
King helped to found the Women's Tennis Association and served as its president from 1973 to 1975 and again from 1980 to 1981. She retired from professional tennis in 1984. Since then, she has served as a tennis commentator, teacher and coach.
King and her husband have promoted coed team tennis. King has also been active in charitable events. In 1995, she joined the Virginia Slims legends tour along with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to raise money for the fight against AIDS. King is an investor in Discovery Zone, a chain of children's "play lands" which promotes the equal athletic abilities of boys and girls.
Billie Jean, published in 1982, is an open and candid autobiography that devotes as much time to her personal life as it does to her professional career. Billie Jean King's Secrets of Winning Tennis (1974) is an illustrated course of instruction designed expressly for women.
For further reading see: We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis, by Billie Jean King and Cynthia Starr, McGraw-Hill, 1988; and Courting Danger by Alice Marble and Dale Leatherman, St. Martin's Press, 1991. For periodicals, see: "The Once and Future King," by Joel Drucker in Women's Sports and Fitness, December 1992, vol. 14, no. 8, pp. 78-79; "Team Tennis: Get Involved!" by Graeme Joffe in Parks and Recreation, May 1992, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 36-40; and "Racket Science" by Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated, April 29, 1991, vol 74, no. 16, pp. 66-80. □