There are very few athletes that have transformed women’s sports and promoted women’s rights in the way that Billie Jean King has. King is considered by many to be one of the greatest tennis players and most influential athletes in American sports history. She was named one of the 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century by Life Magazine in 1990 and became the first woman to have a major sporting venue named in her honor in 2006. In 2009, she became the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As one of the greatest sports figures of all-time, King has been one of society’s most impactful advocates for gender equality, as well as for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
King, originally born Billie Jean Moffitt, was raised in Long Beach, California in a very athletic household. Billie Jean was introduced to tennis in the fifth grade and she realized instantly that this would be her life’s career. As a child and teenager, she worked arduously to pursue her tennis dream. After making a name for herself as a tennis standout at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she attended Cal State Los Angeles and began competing in professional tournaments. In 1961, she gained global recognition when she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title.
Thanks to King’s continued determination, dedication, and commitment, her childhood dream would come true in 1966 — she was recognized as the no. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, a ranking that she held five times throughout her legendary career.
The Open Era began in 1968 which marked the start of the modern era of professional tennis. It allowed both professionals and amateurs to play against each other in Grand Slam tournaments and all of the tennis players competing in those Grand Slam tournaments to play for prize money. During the prime of King’s career, she doggedly fought for equal wages and recognition for women athletes. In 1970, she and the other eight members of the notorious “Original 9” signed a $1 contract to compete in the first ever women’s tennis tour, which Virginia Slims sponsored. This courageous act marked what King has proudly noted as, “the birth of women’s tennis today.” In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000. The following year, she became the first-ever female to be named the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, as well as the first tennis star to receive this honor.
1973 was surely one of the biggest years of King’s life. In an empowering act to protest against the inequality of the wages between men’s and women’s tennis players, King and the other eight members of the “Original 9” founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which is considered “the principal organizing body of women’s professional tennis.” The WTA, with its far-reaching impact in bringing into fruition many of the equalities that King has sought to fight for, is notably considered the global leader in women’s professional sports.
On September 20, 1973, one of the most memorable sporting events in history took place: “The Battle of the Sexes.” Bobby Riggs, who had been a top tennis player in the 1930s and 1940s, had claimed in the months earlier that women’s tennis stars couldn’t compete with men’s tennis stars, and that he, at 55 years old, could take down any female tennis player of the time. A few months after Riggs handily defeated Margaret Court, King agreed to take on Riggs. In this extraordinarily hyped-up nationally televised ABC match, King embarrassed Riggs, convincingly defeating him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and consequently earned the $100,000 winner-take-all prize. King’s “Battle of the Sexes” victory in front of over 30,000 on-sight spectators and an estimated worldwide audience of 90 million viewers served as history’s seminal event in the significant increase of respect for women’s athletes. Still to this day, King’s “Battle of the Sexes” victory” is the highest-rated televised tennis match in history.
In 1974, she co-founded the World Team Tennis (WTT) organization — a transcendent professional tennis league that featured tennis players of both genders and enabled them to earn equal salaries. As player/coach of the Philadelphia Freedom, she became the first woman to coach a professional team containing men. When King later took over as the WTT commissioner in 1984, she became the first female commissioner in professional sports history. The annually-presented WTT championship trophy is named after King. So many of tennis’ all-time luminaries have competed in the WTT league over the years including women’s greats: Billie Jean King (herself), Rosemary Casals, Evonne Goolagong, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Stefanie Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, and Maria Sharapova; and men’s greats: Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Andy Roddick.
Throughout her iconic playing career, King won an astounding total of 39 Grand Slam titles, including a record 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 United States titles, four French titles, and two Australian titles. She also coached the Olympic gold-medal-winning 1996 and 2000 United States women’s tennis teams. King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a player in 1987 and, this year, she and the eight members of the “Original 9” will be the first group recognized by the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In addition to being one of the most respected tennis players and barrier-breaking athletes in history, Billie Jean King’s continued tireless activism in the fight for social justice and equality has made her an extraordinarily influential role model in society. As the trailblazing women’s rights figure that she has been, as one of the first athletes ever to openly disclose homosexuality, and as an extraordinarily thoughtful philanthropist for many and varied communities, King has significantly changed the world.