Billie Jean won for all women
"A lot of women weren't raised with the idea that competing was something they should do. Along came Billie Jean, just at the moment when a lot of the rhetoric of the women's movement was really meeting reality," says Hillary Clinton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Billie Jean King won a dozen Grand Slam singles titles, including six Wimbledon championships and four U.S. crowns. She was ranked No. 1 in the world five years. She defeated such magnificent players as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court.
History has recorded all she has accomplished in furthering the cause of women's struggle for equality in the 1970s. She was instrumental in making it acceptable for American women to exert themselves in pursuits other than childbirth. She was the lightning rod in starting a professional women's tour. She started a women's sports magazine and a women's sports foundation.
What is remembered most about her is she humbled Bobby Riggs.
Let's get that match out of the way. Riggs, a 1939 Wimbledon champion turned hustler, had already massacred Court on Mother's Day 1973. So King, who previously had rejected Riggs' advances for a match, accepted his latest challenge.
"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."
The "Battle of the Sexes" captured the imagination of the country, not just tennis enthusiasts. On Sept. 20, 1973 in Houston, she was carried out on the Astrodome court like Cleopatra, in a gold litter held aloft by four muscular men dressed as ancient slaves. Riggs was wheeled in on a rickshaw pulled by sexy models in tight outfits, "Bobby's Bosom Buddies."
King, then 29, ran the con man ragged, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a match the London Sunday Times called "the drop shot and volley heard around the world."
"Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women," Neil Amdur wrote in The New York Times.
But King was much more than the woman who undressed the self-proclaimed "male chauvinist pig" before a worldwide television audience estimated at almost 50 million. Above all, even more significant than her winning 71 singles tournaments and 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles, she was a pioneer.
"She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. "Moreover, like [Arnold] Palmer, she has made a whole sports boom because of the singular force of her presence."
Navratilova said, "She was a crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock."
It was for King's crusading that Life magazine in 1990 named her one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century." Not sports figures, but Americans. She was the only female athlete on the list, and one of only four athletes (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were the others).
She was born Billie Jean Moffitt on Nov. 22, 1943 in Long Beach, California, the daughter of a firefighter father and homemaker mother. Her younger brother Randy would become a major league pitcher.
She developed into a star softball shortstop before her parents decided that she should pursue a more "ladylike" sport, and give up playing baseball and football. Her father suggested tennis, because it involved running and hitting a ball.
Developing her game on the Long Beach public courts, the pudgy adolescent first gained international recognition as a 17-year-old in 1961 by winning with Karen Hantze the doubles championship at Wimbledon. It was the first of her 20 titles (10 doubles and four mixed to go with the six singles) on the hallowed English grass.
In 1966, King (by now she had married law-student Larry King) won her first singles Wimbledon title and was ranked No. 1, the first of three straight years at the top. The next year, the myopic pepper pot repeated at Wimbledon and won her first U.S. championship.
She carried a deep sense of injustice from being an amateur, when she got by on $100 a week as a playground instructor and student at Los Angeles State College while at the same time she was shining at Wimbledon. She became a significant force in opening tennis to professionalism.
With the birth of the "Open" era in 1968, King turned pro. This time she received more than a trophy for winning Wimbledon. She was on her way to becoming the first woman tennis player to earn more than $1 million and finished with $1,966,487 in prize money.
In those days, women players received much less money than men earned. King's voice was heard loudest in the quest for equality. When a new women's tour was started, with Philip Morris sponsoring a new brand of cigarette, King was perceived as a "radical" heading a breakaway group. The Virginia Slims Tour was marketed with the slogan "You've Come a Long Way, Baby."
Things improved financially. King became the first woman athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a year ($117,000 in 1971), and President Richard Nixon called to congratulate her.
She convinced her colleagues to form a players' union, and the Women's Tennis Association was born. King was its first president in 1973. King, who received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase did for winning the U.S. Open in 1972, said if the prize money wasn't equal by the next year, she wouldn't play, and she didn't think the other women would either. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
The next year, King founded WomenSports magazine, started the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization dedication to promoting and enhancing athletic opportunities for females, and with her husband, formed World Team Tennis.
In early 1975, Seventeen magazine polled its readers and found that King was the most admired woman in the world. Golda Meir, who had been Israel's prime minister until the previous year, finished second.
Despite her promotions and activities away from the court, the 5-foot-4 King still played outstanding tennis, the same aggressive, hard-hitting net rusher she had been. She hated to lose. "Victory is fleeting," she said. "Losing is forever."
When she hit the perfect shot, she would become ecstatic. "My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they're wiggling, but it's also just totally peaceful," King said. "It's almost like having an orgasm -- it's exactly like that."
Unlike most athletes, King's sexual preference became a matter of public record. Two decades ago, having a lover of the same sex was viewed quite unkindly, and was sensational news. In 1981, King admitted her bisexuality amid a palimony suit brought by a former woman lover.
While King's former personal assistant lost the suit, King estimated the episode cost her and her husband millions in endorsements. King, who had an abortion in 1971, and her husband were divorced in 1987.
After retiring from competitive tennis, she remained in the game -- as an announcer, coach and author. She gave clinics, became director of World Team Tennis, and played on a Legends tour. Her legs might have given out, but not her passion for the game.
King believes that she was born with a destiny to work for gender equity in sports and to continue until it's achieved. "In the seventies we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes," she said. "We had to make it okay for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports."
Pop star Helen Reddy may have sung the words, but it is King who is best living them, "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore."