Billie Jean King
Billie Jean Moffitt King, is best thought of as both a tennis and women’s rights pioneer. Arguably the world’s greatest female tennis player she was born on November 22, 1943, at Long Beach, California and honed her tennis skills on the public courts in her home town.
The daughter of a firefighter, she developed considerable sporting prowess and her family displayed remarkable sporting pedigree, with her brother Randy Moffitt becoming a professional base ball player and competing for 12 years in the major leagues.
At 5’ 4” and 130lbs, King was small for the professional game but a real dynamo on the court. However, knee injuries did prove problematical throughout her career. Originally she played under the name Billie Jean Moffit but, after marrying her childhood sweetheart Larry King in 1965, she took the name Billie Jean King.
The pair divorced in 1987, and Billie Jean has since admitted that she is gay after an affair with her secretary Marilyn Barnett. Thankfully the trivialities of her personal life have largely been forgotten and it is her presence as a formidable force, both on and off the court, that she is remembered for.
A Life in Tennis
In the Wimbledon championship’s official annals, Billie Jean is recorded as “the most dynamic and prolific winner ever to play at Wimbledon". In 2006, the home of the US Open, The US National Tennis Centre, was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
It is not just the US and Wimbledon where Billie Jean King was so successful: in 1972 at Roland Garros, she claimed victory in the singles tournament against Evonne Goolagong Cawley and in the same year, with partner Betty Stove, won the women’s doubles. At the Australian Open, 1968 was her year. On the Melbourne hard courts, she again won both singles and mixed doubles.
Achieving success at all 4 singles grand slams is something that has been done by only 5 women in the modern era. Failing to content herself with dominance of the singles, Billie Jean also managed to achieve career grand slams with her partner, Australian Owen Davidson, in the mixed doubles. However, the Australian Open always eluded her in women’s doubles.
However it was neither the clay of Paris nor the hard courts of Melbourne Park, but the grass at Wimbledon that gave Billie Jean her greatest successes. Playing as Billie Jean Moffit, 1961 saw her first victory, partnering Karen Hantze to win the ladies doubles final.
The SW19 courts would go on to see her amass an unrivalled 20 titles, and reaching eight ladies finals between 1966 and 1975, she claimed singles victories in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973 and 1975. The final against Margaret Court in 1970 (before the advent of the tie-break) still holds the record for the longest women’s game, with King eventually losing 14-12, 11-9.
Billie Jean King complemented her singles success with a further 14 doubles titles. Her last championship came in 1979. Playing with Martina Navratilova, they beat Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull. The victory officially made Billie Jean the most successful player of all time at Wimbledon.
Her overall record stands at 224 victories to 41 losses and is rivalled only by Martina Navratilova. Billie Jean, still ranked 13th in the world, announced her official retirement from professional tennis in 1983.
As the prevalent theme in the modern game is one of specialising on either singles or doubles, it is unlikely that Billie Jean King’s remarkable achievements will ever be further challenged.
Billie Jean achieved great success on the court but some would argue that her pivotal role in advocating equality and cementing women’s position in professional sports was her greatest achievement.
On the court, she played with an aggressive serve and volley style that was, until that point, largely alien to the women’s game. However, Billie Jean’s style was hugely important in showing that men and women could play professional sport on a similar level. The most pertinent example of this came in September 1973 when she played in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” match against self-proclaimed chauvinist and former Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs.
In a game at the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean claimed a straight sets (6-4, 6-3. 6-3) victory over Riggs, under the watchful eye of 90 million television viewers. Her victory was seen as a catalyst for the popularity of tennis in the US in the 1970’s.
Always, active in promoting women’s tennis, King has gone on to complete a plethora of achievements in encouraging women’s tennis. As the first player to claim over $100,000 (1971) in winnings in a single year, she has ferociously argued for comparable pay and continues to do so to this day.
In 1970, with the assistance of Gladys Heldman, Billie Jean battled against the existing bias against the women’s game, leading to the foundation of women’s professional tennis and the formation of the Virginia Slims Tour.
In 1973 she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, and in 1974 went on to establish the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports Magazine. In the same year, she began a co-ed professional tennis league which has gone on to become one of the most popular recreational tennis leagues in the US.
Her efforts have been well recognised both during her career and after. In 1972, Sports Illustrated named her "Sportsperson of the Year". This was a real achievement as the award had solely been given to men in the past.
In 1973 she also claimed the title of “Female Athlete of the Year”. In 1990, Life Magazine honoured her as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th Century. In 1994, Sport’s Illustrated named her a Top 40 athlete of the century, not just for her sporting achievements but also for her role in increasing interest in sport.
In 2006, the National Sports Museum of New York City also revealed its intention to unveil the “Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center”, the first permanent collection dedicated to women’s sports.
Still active on the tennis circuit, Billie Jean now devotes much of her time to encouraging children into the game but she has also devoted efforts to AIDS and is a board member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
A good friend to Elton, it is a little known fact that his song, Philadelphia Freedom, was actually penned for Billie Jean. Her commitment to causes outside tennis has also been well recognised and in 2006 she was given the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign.