The world would not be the same without Billie Jean King. A feminist pioneer in the world of sports, she confronted sexism head on, using her status as a world-famous tennis champion (she won 39 Grand Slam titles and a record 20 at Wimbledon) to advance women in the sport. At the height of her fame and dominance in the early ’70s, fed up with the unequal and unfair treatment (and pay) she and her female peers received from the tennis establishment, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and Women’s Sports Magazine and campaigned for Title IX, which requires federally funded schools to give equal backing to men’s and women’s sports. Today the prize money at Grand Slams and about 10 other tennis events is equal for men and women, and, of course, Title IX is in full effect (and as of 2011 has been extended to protect students from sexual assault and harassment—keep that in mind if anyone bothers you at school).
But by far the most attention-getting thing King did during that time was the so-called Battle of the Sexes, a tennis match against the sexist, aging champ Bobby Riggs, on September 20, 1973. Riggs was 55 and obsessed with proving women’s inferiority to men by challenging them to tennis matches. Even at his age, he said, he could easily beat even the best female player in the world. King was 29 and the best female player in the world. She took up Riggs’s challenge…and won. It was one of the most-watched sporting events in history and it changed people’s attitudes toward women’s sports forever. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said later. “It would…affect all women’s self-esteem.”
In 1981, King was outed as a lesbian in a palimony lawsuit brought by her longtime partner. Nowadays, out lesbians are hired to sell everything from makeup to men’s clothing, but back in ’81 this disclosure was met with an intense homophobic backlash that caused King to lose all her endorsements. Since retiring from tennis in 1983, she has worked tirelessly as an activist and advocate for LGTBQ rights all over the world. She’s also still dedicated to helping girls and women in sports, and to making tennis accessible to any kid who wants to play. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.
She has been an inspiration to me since I was a little girl growing up with a tennis-obsessed mom, and it was an honor to get to speak to her on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, about her amazing life, the documentary PBS just aired about her (you can watch it here), and how far we’ve come since 1973.
JESSICA: In the PBS documentary, you said that tennis teaches people how to win. What did you mean by that?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Tennis teaches you to win because it teaches you to learn every day, to accept responsibility. For instance, when the ball comes to me, I have to make a decision really quickly. Every single decision on every single ball has consequences, just like decisions in real life. You hit the ball and it’s out [of bounds]—that’s feedback for the next time. I don’t call it failure, I call it feedback—it helps us stay positive about ourselves. [Being involved in] any sport teaches you to be disciplined with your time, since you [have to] practice to improve your playing. It teaches you teamwork, how to get along. If things don’t go your way, you recharge your batteries and start again the next day. It teaches you all the things you need to be a champion off the field, in your life, no matter what you are doing. Doing sports teaches you to be strong. It teaches strength of character, the discipline to do it every day. Most of the time, sports don’t get that kind of credit. We’re not just dumb jocks!
What did it feel like the first time you won a tournament [in 1958, at the age of 14]?
I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to get better. Wanting to be the best I can be—that’s what propelled me. I started with novice [junior] tournaments, where you weren’t even allowed to serve, but I always wanted to be known around the world as a tennis player. I am one of the crazy ones. [Laughs] So I just kept thinking about how I needed to keep developing my game so that I could be number one in the world. [Victory] is fleeting—the process of getting there is what propels you. What makes it exciting is the daily routine, because when you do win, you know it’s because you did the work [to get there], and when you don’t win, you learn to bounce back. You are always starting over.
I probably didn’t enjoy my wins enough. I was trying to do so much off the court—changing things—that I really didn’t. You don’t really have very long to enjoy a win in tennis, especially when the very next day there is usually another tournament, and you just have to keep getting ready for that.
Since your retirement you have dedicated yourself to, among so many other things, opening tennis up to young people of all backgrounds, including working-class kids like you were, partly through teaching. What made you want to do that?
Teaching is what I really do. I think I got it from my parents, by example—they were good to each other, and they supported me and my brother doing what we loved: my brother with baseball and me being crazy with tennis. They didn’t care if we were any good. They didn’t push us.
You have never shied away from being a role model—instead you seem to embrace that role and its responsibilities. Where did you get that confidence from?
I wasn’t confident, I was scared! But that was my dream. Coming from California in the ’50s and ’60s and watching what happened in Memphis and Little Rock…I remember asking my parents why. Because in California we all went to school together; I grew up with all kinds of people. Jackie Robinson being from California was really important, too. So when I was 12 I started to think about tennis: Everyone wears white clothes, there’s white balls, and everyone playing it was white. I just thought, Where is everybody else? I just wanted equal rights for men and women, boys and girls—for all of us. But women were so far behind. That was part of the reason. We just had a big tournament where we have boys and girls, 15 to 18, on the same team, so it’s equal. Everything I do is about equality–thats my life’s work.
Your feminist awakening seems to have come so early!
I don’t discount anyone. Not just women. Human beings period.
What’s your advice for girls today who are pursuing a dream?
I want young people to define themselves and not let others define them. I want them to dream big and go for it. ♦