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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Billie Jean King, Tennis Star and Feminist Pioneer

November 22, 2010
by Denis Cummings
Tennis star Billie Jean King spent her career campaigning for gender equality in sports. Her win in 1973’s highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” match helped to legitimize women’s athletics in the eyes of the world.

Billie Jean King’s Early Days

Billie Jean Moffitt was born on Nov. 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. She was blessed with athletic talent at an early age, excelling at softball and football, but her conservative parents pushed her to more ladylike sports. At the age of 11, she bought her first tennis racket for eight dollars, using money she had saved up from odd jobs.

In 1961, at the age of 17, she won the Wimbledon championship, her first of a record 20 total Wimbledon titles. She attended California State University at Los Angeles, where she became committed to feminist ideals after Larry King, her future husband, noted that he had a tennis scholarship and she did not, solely because she was a woman.

The two married in 1965; by 1968, she later admitted, she knew that she was a lesbian. In 1972, her husband told Ms. Magazine—without her permission—that she’d had an abortion in 1971, which caused a minor controversy.

King’s Groundbreaking Tennis Career

King was one of the greatest tennis players of her generation, winning 129 singles tournaments, including 67 WTA Tour tournaments and 12 Grand Slams, and 27 women’s and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. However, it is her public support for women’s rights for which she is most remembered.

In 1970, King was the most noteworthy of nine female players to join the upstart Virginia Slims Circuit, the first women’s-only tennis tour. She helped form the first union for female tennis players in 1973, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA); a year later, she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women’s sports.

As the first WTA president, she threatened to lead a boycott of the 1973 U.S. Open if female players weren’t awarded the same prize money as the men. The U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association consented and the 1973 Open became the first tournament to award equal prize money.

Weeks after the Open, King would cement her role as a female sports icon in the “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs. A 55-year-old former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, Riggs had challenged the top female players as a publicity stunt. Adopting the persona of a “male chauvinist pig,” Riggs declared that “women just don’t have the emotional stability for the game.”

On May 13, 1973, he routed top-ranked Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 in what became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre. King had originally turned down Riggs’s offer to play, but after seeing Court embarrassed by Riggs, she felt she needed to prove that women could compete with men.

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match,” said King. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem.”

On September 20, 1973, amid a circus-like atmosphere at Houston’s Astrodome, King dominated the match, winning 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. It was the “drop shot and volley heard around the world,” declared The Sunday Times of London.

The passage of Title IX in 1972 required high schools and colleges to provide women equal access to athletics. King’s victory added an important boost to the growing women’s sports movement, and helped to legitimize Title IX. Sports Illustrated declared 1974 the “Year of the Woman in sport.”

The Rest of the Story

In 1981, a former female secretary sued King for alimony, exposing a homosexual relationship between the two. As the first famous female athlete to be outed, she lost, in her estimate, millions in endorsements. King called the relationship a mistake and for many years “refused to embrace a lesbian identity,” according to “Lesbian Histories and Cultures.”

In a 2007 interview with The Times of London, King explained why she kept her sexuality a secret for so long. “I couldn’t get a closet deep enough,” she said. “I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic.”

She divorced her husband in 1987 and is currently in a relationship with retired tennis player Ilana Kloss. She is now active in promoting gay rights and serves on the board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation—the two have been friends since the 1970s and Elton John’s 1975 hit “Philadelphia Freedom” was written about King.

King retired from singles tennis in 1984, becoming commissioner of World TeamTennis, which she and her husband had helped to create in 1973. She has remained in the public eye, promoting gender equality during frequent public speaking appearances.

She still serves on the board of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which in May 2008 opened the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center, the first museum dedicated to women’s sports.

In 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, for her work in advancing women’s athletics.

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