Commentary

Billie Jean King: A golden anniversary

Legendary player sparked sweeping social change for women, tennis

Updated: June 26, 2011, 6:11 PM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special To ESPN.com

Editor's note: This month marks the 50th anniversary of tennis legend Billie Jean King's first title at Wimbledon.

Fifty years ago this month, Billie Jean Moffitt, then a 17-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., boarded a plane to London. She was on her way to Wimbledon, the Mecca of tennis, a place she had studied, dreamed about and even used as the setting of a high school essay. Little did she know that half a century later, she would occupy her place at Centre Court as seamlessly as she struck her backhand volley.

Now, as a 67-year-old legend, King recalls her thoughts as an eager teen ready to make a mark in the sport she loved.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
AP Photo/Jim PringleIn 1961, at age 17, Billie Jean King captured international recognition when she teamed up with Karen Hantze to win the Wimbledon doubles title.

Upon arrival at the All England Club, King was taken to the top of Centre Court by a prominent British sports writer, Gerry Williams.

"He had me close my eyes," King said, "and when I opened them, it was love at first sight. It was just like I'd pictured it. The symmetry, the way it was small and intimate."

Long before the concept of visualization entered the lexicon, young Moffitt devoted hours to painting her personal picture of Wimbledon.

In bed with her sweater and racquet, she read such books as "The Road to Wimbledon" by Alice Marble -- who, 20 years after winning Wimbledon in 1939, would mentor Billie Jean -- and "Tennis with Hart" by Doris Hart, an American great of the '40s and '50s. This, of course, went along with hours and hours of time on the court.

Billie Jean had come of age in Southern California, the tennis-rich region that has long been the most fertile of grounds for development of world-class players.

There had been the trek from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley for lessons with Marble, and to the Los Angeles Tennis Club, a club that for decades was arguably the center of the American tennis universe -- and the place where young Billie Jean first encountered the big-time tennis world.

Champions such as Ellsworth Vines, future King political adversary Jack Kramer and "Battle of the Sexes" rival Bobby Riggs had cut their teeth on these courts. The L.A. Tennis Club was also the place where 19-time Wimbledon champion Elizabeth "Bunny" Ryan -- a fellow Southern Californian who would later play a distinct role in Billie Jean's Wimbledon saga -- first noted the bubbly girl from Long Beach.

Billie Jean King
AP PhotoBy 1967, Billie Jean King had won her second straight Wimbledon singles title. In her career, she won six singles titles at the All England Club.

Another significant Southern Californian in Billie Jean's world was Darlene Hard, America's best in the late '50s and early '60s who successfully introduced serve-and-volley tennis into the women's ranks.

In King's adolescent essay, Hard was the one who arrived at the airport to pick her up in a red 1950 Chevrolet convertible. Hard reportedly asked King, "How was the trip, little one?"

Neither mentor nor protégé could have imagined that the answer would, in time, cover so much territory.

King has always believed that her Wimbledon debut was aided by the fact that her first singles match -- a three-set loss to Mexico's Yola Ramirez -- was played on Centre Court.

"And there was rain, so it was played over two days," she said. "What an experience! I loved being on that court, seeing the old clock they had there with the Roman numerals."

That rookie year, she and Karen Hantze, a fellow Southern Californian 11 months Billie Jean's elder, won the doubles title --- a win they celebrated with a 32-year-old journalist from Boston, Bud Collins.

"Wimbledon felt right away like my home," King said.

A year later she made another splash with a first-round win over No. 1 seed Margaret Smith, an Australian star who would leave her mark on the sport as Margaret Court, and would prove King's biggest rival. After losing in the quarterfinals of the singles bracket, she and Hantze -- who went on to win singles -- successfully repeated their doubles run.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaHer career statistics continue to impress, but Billie Jean King's greatest legacy to the sport will always be the social and political changes she sparked.

But as much desire as Billie Jean had to excel at tennis, her commitment was intermittent. Championship tennis in the '60s had no purses or big-time prize money, forcing players to shuffle in and out of the ragtag circuit of events played mostly at small clubs, and administered by volunteers.

For Moffitt, fall, winter and spring were largely devoted to her studies, where for $47 a semester she was enrolled at California State University at Los Angeles. Even when she knocked off three seeded players to reach the Wimbledon finals in '63 -- where she suffered a loss to Smith that stung deeply for several years -- by autumn, Billie Jean spent more time in libraries and scraping for dollars than pondering greatness.

In its own way, life as a young dabbler might well have been the time she was most popular at Wimbledon. The British, as many tennis players have noted, are more smitten with the engaging loser than the driven warrior. There was a certain daffiness to Billie Jean in the early '60s, a sense that she was more character than champion, an expressive Yank who enjoyed a good charge to the net -- and a big bowl of ice cream. She'd spark things up, but in the end could be counted on to make way for the marquee players at the denouement.

All that would change in 1964, when a sponsor funded a trip for her to Australia. There, she retooled her game under the tutelage of 1958 Roland Garros champion Mervyn Rose.

Billie Jean King
AP Photo/Bob DearThis doubles victory along with Martina Navratilova in 1979 marked Billie Jean King's 20th Wimbledon title.

Moffitt returned from Australia armed not just with a revamped serve and forehand, but also a new attitude, a red-hot desire to realize her life's ambition of becoming the No. 1 player in the world.

"And Wimbledon was where you did it," she said. "Wimbledon was where you proved once and for all you were the best."

By 1966, married now to Larry King, then a Berkeley law student, Billie Jean won her first Wimbledon singles title. As King wrote in her 1982 autobiography, "I was very subdued, almost grim. … It was the anticipation, I think, of finally reaching a goal I had been working toward most of my life. It was coming closer and closer and I didn't want to let anything stop me from reaching it."

No longer was she the engaging sidekick. She had become the queen.

At the same time, the nascent visions she'd had about tennis began to gain clarity. She'd always been miffed by the game's noncredible amateur code.

As Larry studied law at Berkeley, and while events such as the Free Speech Movement and tear-gas-laden antiwar protests brewed blocks away from their home, King began to buck the system in search of change.

Tennis then was governed by an archaic amateur code. There was no official prize money, but players were capriciously paid various under-the-table sums. It was hardly a way to live as a legitimate athlete. In 1967, the year King won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships, she earned approximately $20,000.

"Fighting the fight for Open tennis in the '60s was a great thing," she said. "I spoke out. I said the future was in professional tennis. All people who change things love tradition. They want to create new traditions."

[+] EnlargeIn 1973, an 18-year-old Chris Evert was no match for Billie Jean King at Wimbledon.
AP PhotoIn 1973, an 18-year-old Chris Evert was no match for Billie Jean King at Wimbledon.

As the Open Era began in 1968, King kept rolling, winning her third straight Wimbledon singles title. There were runs to the finals in '69 and '70, the latter highlighted by a 14-12, 11-9 loss to Court that is considered by many to be one of the greatest matches in the history of women's tennis. King, though, shudders when she recalls that both she and her opponent were injured and how much better the quality of tennis is today.

"We looked so slow," she said.

King's speed would soon accelerate both on and off the court. Though she'd already won three singles, six doubles and one mixed doubles title in her first decade at the All England Club, Billie Jean King's finest Wimbledon moments were yet to come.

The bright lights of fame can obscure the telling details. King's impact has transcended so far beyond the lines of the tennis court that it's easy to overlook the very craft that made it possible for her to expand her platform.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
AP Photo/Lennox Mclendon Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova would form one of the most formidable tennis duos in the late '70s.

Even that paragraph fails to do justice to a simple truth: This is a woman who was one of the keenest students of the game in tennis history, an astute technician -- and a supreme competitor.

Yes, there is the abstract, articulated in such iconic King axioms as "be in the now" and "the ball tells me what to do" and "pressure is a privilege."

In retrospect, it is tempting to think of King as a natural competitor, able to summon up her instinct for the right shot at the right time.

But after all, what is instinct but trained knowledge?

Then there is the concrete, and what King recalls as her finest Wimbledon moment. There is a 1971 final deadlocked at 13-13 in the decisive set. Not the singles, nor even the doubles, it was mixed doubles -- the kind of competition King had craved since childhood -- boys and girls, jousting together, the vision she would eventually realize when she and Larry King created World Team Tennis.

Here was King in the '71 mixed doubles final, joined with an Aussie she'd met in 1964, Owen Davidson. Across the net stood her fiercest rival, Court, in partnership with a formidable American, Marty Riessen.

"That was unbelievable," King said. "All four of us were at the net, eyeball to eyeball, everyone leaving their guts out there."

As the birds fluttered over the rim of Centre Court, as the tension grew with each point, King turned to her partner and uttered a simple declaration: Owen, let's get this thing done.

With that, the pair snapped up the next two games.

1971 was also the year King became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a calendar year. King had been the ringleader, working with World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to bring the Virginia Slims circuit to life.

Billie Jean King
AP PhotoIn all, Billie Jean King won 20 Wimbledon titles in her storied career.

The humorous term was "Women's Lob," but during the 1973 Wimbledon, King and her peers were hardly laughing.

At the Gloucester Hotel in London, many female players gathered in a meeting room. In hopes of finding common ground and pulling her peers together, King uttered a simple declaration to a well-respected Dutch player, Betty Stove: Betty, lock the door. Soon enough, the Women's Tennis Association had been formed.

The founding of the WTA has had a profound impact on women's sports and served as an inspiration for women to challenge the system seeking equal prize money and equal treatment. King, always on the cutting edge of activism, used the mold of WTA to champion other causes, such as Title IX, which granted equality for women in institutions which received taxpayer funds. Ground Zero for the Title IX debate was the NCAA.

"I was in college in the '60s," King told reporter Luke Smith in a June 2007 story published by Active.com. "Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and all these great players -- all the men -- had scholarships to college and I didn't. And the only reason I didn't was because of my gender."

Meanwhile, there was the on-court business.

Entered in three events as usual at Wimbledon, King reached all three finals, a feat she'd also accomplished in 1967.

This time, though, rain backed up the playing schedule. On the same Saturday she routed Chris Evert 6-0, 7-5 to win her fifth Wimbledon singles title, King played three more matches. By Sunday night she had earned a sweep of all three events -- and a week later held a news conference to discuss her forthcoming "Battle of the Sexes" match with Bobby Riggs.

Billie Jean King
AP Photo/Peter KempIn 1982, Billie Jean King beat Tracy Austin for the women's title at Wimbledon.

Asked 25 years later how long it took her to recover from 1973, King said, "I'm still recovering."

Those were heady times, King in the thick of everything from the new pro circuit and union to the 1974 launch of her and Larry's brainchild, World Team Tennis.

She was also very vocal on many hot-button topics such as Title IX and a host of priorities that kept her bouncing between breakfasts with feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, practice sessions with World Team Tennis teammates such as Sandy Mayer and Fred Stolle and the relentless pace of one match after another.

At the 1975 Wimbledon, a 31-year-old King found herself in the semis versus Evert -- the previous year's champion -- down 3-0 in the third. She fought back to six games on the trot, a run of great form she carried into the final, where she routed Evonne Goolagong 6-0, 6-1.

With that victory, King announced her retirement from singles. "I want to quit on top," she said, a mantra that was quite prevalent during those years, as evidenced by the early exits of football great Jim Brown, basketball's Wilt Chamberlain and baseball star Sandy Koufax.

Though an injury had ended Koufax's career, Brown and Chamberlain were in fighting form. So was King.

Before, during and after her hiatus from competitive play, King's life took some radical turns. She became romantically involved with her longtime secretary, Marilyn Barnett -- a relationship that would remain secret into the early 1980s but which would define many of her decisions in the years to come.

In 1977, King was increasingly aware that her early retirement at the top of her game was a mistake.

"In '76, I was still beating Chris and Martina [Navratilova] in practice," King said. "Why not keep playing and enjoying the game?"

She returned to singles at the onset of the '77 season, but controversy soon followed. She chose to return to the sport at a tournament in San Antonio which most of her peers shunned because it had allowed Dr. Renee Richards, a transgender player, to enter the women's draw.

Her decision to play the tournament was criticized harshly by her peers, including Evert, Navratilova and Stove, all whom claimed Richards, as a former man, could not be allowed to play in the women's circuit.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
AP PhotoLong way, baby: Challenging Bobby Riggs helped Billie Jean King raise awareness of women's tennis.

Despite the controversy, King came back in championship form as she won in San Antonio, had solid showings during the clay-court season and reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

Controversy, however, followed King. In 1981, Barnett filed an unprecedented palimony suit against King in Los Angeles, successfully outing King, who became the first professional athlete to acknowledge a homosexual relationship. Despite being an outcast to her peers and shunned by her sponsors, King bravely plowed on with her playing career.

In '82 and '83, she put together impressive Wimbledon runs, reaching the semis both years -- the last coming in the year she turned 40. Over the course of those last years, she continued to etch her name into the record book.

King's 1975 run to the singles crown marked her 19th Wimbledon title -- tying her for the most all time with none other than Bunny Ryan, the Southern Californian who'd watched her play back in those black-and-white days of the '50s.

Never confuse age with a decline in pride. Ryan's self-esteem was wrapped up in her record, a feat she'd attained in the '10s, '20s and '30s without winning the singles draw, despite reaching two finals.

As King showed up each year taking a crack at title No. 20, Ryan grew increasingly miffed. It was reported that Ryan didn't want to see King break her record and on July 8, 1979, while at Wimbledon, she died at the age of 87.

The next day, partnered with Navratilova, King won doubles for her 20th title.

"I wasn't very jubilant," said King as she pondered the chain of events. Oddly enough, nearly a quarter-century later, Navratilova would earn her 20th Wimbledon title.

Over the past quarter century, King has continued to be a part of Wimbledon. For nearly two decades, she held a number of jobs in television, with NBC and a long stint with HBO through the end of 1999.

In the flat she rents a stone's throw from the grounds, King loves the cable setup that lets her flip back and forth between courts. There are also intermittent treks to the All England Club, occasionally for a special match, or to watch juniors, and always when often invited on the middle Saturday to sit in the Royal Box.

Wimbledon was once the locus of activity for King, but now it's also the calm before the storm. The World Team Tennis season kicks off immediately after Wimbledon, a month-long journey throughout the U.S. that finds her once again in one airplane, hotel and venue after another.

"I still get the same vibes around Wimbledon," King said. "It's more beautiful. It's bigger. I always wanted it to improve and be bigger and better."

On the day before the tournament starts, she likes to take a glimpse at Centre Court and repeat a ritual she began that first year.

"I went down to the court and felt the grass," King said. "So I ask the guard if I can touch the grass."

Like King, the great poet T.S. Eliot was an American who made a name for himself in Great Britain. A few lines from his poem "Little Gidding" captures the essence of each trip Billie Jean King takes to Wimbledon -- never more so on this golden anniversary:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The first Wimbledon final Joel Drucker watched was Billie Jean King's 1972 win over Evonne Goolagong.