King, Billie Jean Moffitt

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KING, Billie Jean Moffitt

(b. 22 November 1943 in Long Beach, California), prominent tennis player and leading advocate of equality for women within sport who won sixteen Grand Slam tournaments during the 1960s.

The older of two children born to Willis B. Moffitt, a fireman, and Betty Jerman, a housewife, King first began tennis lessons at the age of eleven. (Her brother, Randy, would become a Major League Baseball player.) A natural at the sport, the following year (1955) she won the Class D women's singles of the Long Beach Closed tournament and in 1959, at age sixteen, she earned the number-nineteen spot in the U.S. women's national rankings. In 1960 King won her first national women's title, teaming with Darlene Hard to capture the doubles crown at the National Clay Courts. Despite her relatively small size (five feet, four and one-half inches and 130 pounds), King possessed the quickness and athleticism that enabled her to play the serve-and-volley style of game, and in 1960 she began to capitalize on this ability on the faster playing surfaces. King proceeded to win the Philadelphia District Grass Court singles title and then reached the semifinals of the prestigious Eastern Grass Court and Pennsylvania Lawn tournaments. After reaching the third round of the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, New York, she was rewarded with a number-four ranking in U.S. women's tennis.

After graduating from Long Beach Poly High School in 1961, that summer, at age seventeen, King made her first trip to England, where she teamed with Karen Hantze to win the doubles title at London's Queen's Club tournament. The unseeded American teenagers then shocked everyone by sweeping to the doubles championship at Wimbledon without losing a set—King's first Grand Slam title. After playing for the U.S. Wightman Cup team for the first time, King returned to America, where she reached the singles semifinals at the National Clay Courts and the Eastern Grass event. She then won singles and doubles titles at the Philadelphia District Grass Court tournament and a week later won the singles crown at the important Philadelphia Lawn tournament. At the end of the season King was elevated to the number-three U.S. ranking, and in the fall she entered Los Angeles State College.

In the summer of 1962 King signaled her readiness to become a serious challenger on the international tennis scene as she advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, after registering a stunning second-round singles victory over number-one-seeded Margaret Smith of Australia (1–6, 6–3, 7–5). This match began a long rivalry between the two players. King and Karen Hantze-Susman repeated their doubles championship at Wimbledon before losing in the final of the U.S. Doubles tournament later in the summer. The American duo would be ranked number one among U.S. women's teams at the end of the year—the first of thirteen such doubles rankings King achieved with various partners during her career.

King was still attending Los Angeles State in 1963 and early 1964, but increasingly her interests were focused on tennis. Her place as one of the top women players in the world was solidified in singles play at Wimbledon with a second-place finish in 1963 and a semifinal berth in 1964—losing to Smith on both occasions. King also notched her first national singles crown at the Irish Championships of 1963, while in 1964 she captured the Eastern Grass singles title and, with Hantze-Susman, won the U.S. Doubles title that summer. Despite disappointing singles performances at the U.S. Nationals, King was ranked number two among U.S. women at the end of both years. In the fall of 1964 King decided to leave college and concentrate on tennis, playing the Australian tournaments in January 1965. There she reached the semifinal or final of three tournaments, before returning home to win the singles titles of the California State and Southern California tournaments. That summer King reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, and she came home with another Grand Slam doubles crown after teaming with Maria Bueno of Brazil. In America she won the singles titles of the Eastern Grass and Pennsylvania Lawn tournaments before advancing to the final of the U.S. Nationals, where she lost to Margaret Smith. On 17 September 1965 she married Larry King, a law student, and at the end of the year she was ranked as the number-one player in U.S. women's tennis.

The seasons of 1966 through 1968 represent the peak of King's play during the decade, as she notched the number-one ranking in the world for all three years. In 1966 she demonstrated her versatility on different surfaces as she won singles titles at the U.S. National Indoors, the U.S. National Hard Courts, the South African Nationals (beating Smith), and, at last, Wimbledon. In 1967, along with winning the singles at the California State and Eastern Grass tournaments, King repeated her triumph at Wimbledon (also sharing in the doubles and mixed doubles titles). She capped off her year with the long-sought singles championship at the U.S. Nationals and the South American singles crown, and she was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

By 1967 the landscape of world tennis was changing, and King was one of the major advocates of open tennis play between professionals and amateurs and an outspoken critic of the sport's hypocritical pose of so-called amateurism—stances that brought her into conflict with U.S. tennis officials. After open tennis was approved in early 1968, she signed a professional contract and joined the National Tennis League tour; that year she also won the singles title at the Australian Nationals and repeated her championship at Wimbledon. In 1969 she won titles at the South African and Irish National Opens and lost in the final at Wimbledon.

Always a vigorous campaigner for equal tournament prestige and prize money for women's tennis, in 1970 King played a significant role in organizing and promoting the Virginia Slims women's tour, while in 1973 she founded and was the first president of the Women's Tennis Association players' union. During the 1970s, while working to popularize women's tennis, she continued to play at the top level of the game, although most people primarily recall her famous 1973 nationally televised exhibition match against Bobby Riggs. King ended her competitive tennis career in 1984 with a total of thirty-nine singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships in Grand Slam tournaments, and in 1990 Life magazine named her one of the 100 Most Important Americans of the Twentieth Century.

There are a wide variety of writings on King's tennis career—both in books and sport periodicals during her playing days. She coauthored an autobiography with Kim Chapin entitled Billie Jean (1974) and then advanced the story with another version coauthored with Frank Deford, also entitled Billie Jean (1982). There were several short books issued during her career, including Marshall and Sue Burchard, Sports Hero, Billie Jean King (1975). King herself, with Cynthia Starr, authored a work on the development of women's professional tennis, We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis (1988).

Raymond Schmidt