Women’s History Month: Billie Jean King

Kevin Sethre, staff writer
A photo of Billie Jean King, taken in 1978 by Mitchell Weinstock.

From a young age, Billie Jean King was confident that she would become a tennis star.  According to her biography on the National Women’s Hall of Fame website, she started playing tennis at the age of 11 and told her mother that she was “going to be No. 1 in the world” after one of her first lessons.  She made this dream a reality by holding the top ranking in the world in women’s tennis five times (1967-1968, 1971-1972, and 1974) and winning a total of 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles, and mixed titles. 

While she had many impressive accomplishments on the court, the work King did off the court was even more important.  Fueled by the memory of not being included in a group picture at a junior tournament in 1955, she became a social advocate for the advancement of women in tennis.

Her first campaign was for equal prize money awarded to both male and female tennis players.  According to ESPN, King became the first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in 1971, but when she won the U.S. Open the following year, she still made $15,000 less than the men’s champion.  To combat this, she formed the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973 and became its first president.  She used this position to lobby for equal prize money, and soon after, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer this to both sexes. 

King also famously beat male player Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes.”  Riggs, who had been a top men’s player in the 1930s and 40s, “claimed the women’s game was so inferior to the men’s game that even someone as old as he was (55) could beat the current top female players,” according to King’s website.  King proved him wrong by beating him in straight sets, with scores of 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3 in a match that an estimated 90 million people watched around the world.  King’s win, along with the passage of Title IX by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, is often considered the spark that ignited a boom in women’s sports participation.

While she continued to excel at tennis, she faced further scrutiny in her personal life when she was publicly outed as a lesbian in 1981 and lost all of her endorsement deals.  Despite this, she continued her crusade against all forms of inequality and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009 for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.

Through her tireless efforts, King paved the way for Venus and Serena Williams, Steffi Graff, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and many other female tennis players who have gained international recognition and success through playing this game they love.

King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.