By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Billie Jean King won six Wimbledon singles championships and four U.S. Open titles. She was ranked No. 1 in the world five years. She defeated such magnificent players as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court.
It isn't a reach to say that Billie Jean King has done the most for women in their fight for equality in sports.
Yet of all her matches, the one that is remembered most is her victory against a 55-year-old man.
History has recorded all King 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.
But what is remembered most about her is that 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 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, Calif., 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.
"I knew after my first lesson what I wanted to do with my life," she said.
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.
After having to get by on $100 a week as a playground instructor and student at Los Angeles State College while at the same time shining at Wimbledon, King became a significant force in opening tennis to professionalism. She carried a deep sense of injustice from her amateur days.
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 earning $1,966,487 in career 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 (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 dedicated to promoting and enhancing athletic opportunities for females, and with her husband, formed World Team Tennis.
In 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. Eventually, King and her husband were divorced.
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 '70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes," she said. "We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports."
NPR MONDAY AUGUST 25 INTERVIEW with Billie Jean King
"Morning Edition, August 25, 2008. As the 35th anniversary of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" match approaches, co-host Renee Montagne talks to tennis legend Billie Jean King about that famous match. King highlights the lessons that helped her win that match in a new book, Pressure is a Privilege - Lessons I've Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes."
Billy Jean King was interviewed by NPR Morning Edition's Renee Montagne this morning regarding the "Battle of the Sexes" match between Billie and Bobby Riggs, approaching its 35th anniversary.
When asked if she thought her victory over Riggs had an immediate impact on women's tennis, Billie Jean King replied, "It actually had an impact on tennis."
King cited the largest attendance ever for both the men's and women's professional tours in 1974, the year following her match with Riggs, and which has been attributed directly to it. In addition, the first network contracts for both men's and women's tennis were another direct result of the now historic event.
"It's funny how when a woman does something they always think we only affect half of the population," said King, commenting further on the "women's tennis" slant on Montagne's question. "I think people perceive women that way all the time and that's not good...If you effect one human being, I think its a domino effect. It changes the puzzle, the framing - everything."
I remember that wild and crazy tennis match. Never having watched a tennis match before in my life, I sat glued to the set with millions of others. We feminists had a personal stake in this match. "Male chauvinist pigs" stood on the brink of being silenced.
The principle of Equality, for which many of us were marching in the streets, was on the line.
Billie Jean King became a major hero to the feminist movement with her victory. The match was a media spectacle, admittedly, but the social, cultural and political impact of her victory is still being felt today.
"Also what came from this match is the first generation of men of the women's movement. Because I have men coming up to me today," King shared in the inteview, "that have daughters and they have tears in their eyes. And they tell me how that match.....they were ten years old, 12 years old 17 years old, and how that match changed their life and how they raised their daughters. They're the first generation of men that truly believe that their daughters and sons should have equal opportunity."
Actually, my Dad was totally a chauvinist, EXCEPT that he raised me to believe that I could be anything I wanted. Neither he nor my mother set limitations on my aspirations, which was cool, BUT not typical.
The struggle for equal treatment continues today. An article from the AFL-CIO states:
"Equal pay has been the law since 1963. But today, nearly 45 years later, women are still paid less than men-even with similar education, skills and experience."
"In 2007, women were paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Economist Evelyn Murphy, president and founder of The WAGE Project, estimates the wage gap costs the average full-time U.S. woman worker between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of her work life." See: http://www.aflcio.org/issues/jobseconomy/women/equalpay/
So, as the song says, "the beat goes on..." But not without a leader who is still an inspiration to multiple generations today. Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs helped to change some attitudes that needed updating. She wasn't the entire women's liberation movement, but she definitely gave it a huge boost that day.
Here's to you Billie Jean King. Rock on! -Deb Adler
Note: Cited sources and reprinted stories are copyrighted. All rights revert to the original publishers.
©2008 Deborah Adler. All rights reserved.
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