In contention for the greatest female tennis player of all time, Billie Jean King’s life is an inspirational tale of upward mobility, pioneering spirit, success and an unquenchable thirst for victory.
Born to a stuffy Methodist middle class family in Long Beach, California, she learned her sport after her father suggested she play a more ladylike game than baseball, on the free public courts available to those of her class. She progressed exceptionally fast, especially after securing the coaching of former tennis great Alice Marble. She shot to international recognition when she won the Wimbledon doubles tournament with Karen Hantze in 1961, becoming one of the youngest ever pair to win the title. She went on to win a further 19 Wimbledon titles, six in singles, 9 in doubles, and four in mixed doubles, sharing the record with Martina Navratilova. Her career was nothing short of legendary, consisting of 39 Grand Slam Titles, featuring 12 singles, 16 women's doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles, a career grand slam in singles and mixed doubles, 129 singles titles and prize money totalling US$1,966,48.
About this last achievement however, King was less pleased; she was the first female tennis player to publicly denounce the inequality of prize money between the men’s and women’s game, convincing her colleagues to form the Women’s Tennis Association, with her as its President in 1973. Backed by the women’s players union she helped create, she refused to play in the 1973 US Open unless she earned as much as its male winner, a stand successful in making the US Open the first major to offer equal prize money to both sexes.
This was the beginning of King’s long career as a women’s activist in Sport, which made her a target for the chauvinistic 1939 Wimbledon winner Bobby Riggs, who challenged her to a match in order to demonstrate the superiority of men’s tennis.
‘The Battle of the Sexes’ took place in Houston 1973, and saw 50 million viewers witness King handily dispatching Riggs in three sets. She proceeded to found WomenSports magazine and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. As a sign of the esteem in which she was globally held, Seventeen Magazine’s 1975 poll found she beat out Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir as the most admired woman in the world. A 1981 lawsuit by a former lover outed King’s bisexuality, which made her the first well-known female athlete to admit her non-hetero sexual orientation and lost her several major endorsements, but would thrust her into the role of LGBTI advocate. She received the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in recognition of her lifetime’s achievements. Despite her 5 foot 4 frame, Billie Jean King stands tall amongst the pantheon of sporting greats, and will be remembered as a bold and pioneering campaigner for women’s and LGBTI equality.