King, Billie Jean
American tennis player
Billie Jean King, more than anyone, revolutionized women's tennis. One of the greatest players ever, King was in the Top Ten five times between 1966 and 1972, and has won 20 Wimbledon championships. She founded charitable organizations as well as the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation, which she established to ensure that females have equal access to participation and leadership opportunities in sports and fitness. King, involved with
the sport for more than five decades, has been most effective in addressing matters of financial equity and respect for women's tennis. Life magazine in 1990 named King one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the Twentieth Century," and Sports Illustrated in 1994 ranked her No. 5 in its list of top 40 athletes who have elevated their sport. King, honored frequently for athleticism and public service, is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Against All Odds
Billie Jean Moffitt was only a teenager when she took the international spotlight by winning, with Karen Hantze, the women's doubles tournament at Wimbledon in 1961. Her journey to the first of an amazing run of victories there began on the public tennis courts at Long Beach, California.
The daughter of Betty Jerman Moffitt, who sold Avon and Tupperware products, and fireman Willis "Bill" Moffitt, King grew up in a working-class family with brother Randy, five years her junior. She was named after her father, though the family often called her the more affectionate "Sister" or "Sissy." She was "a little angel," her mother recalled in a 1975 interview with journalist Joe Hyams. Like their father, the young Moffitts were baseball fans, and Billie Jean, who played softball as a youngster, became an excellent hitter. (Randy earned 96 saves in 12 years as a major league relief pitcher, mostly for the San Francisco Giants.) Realizing at age 11 that "there was no place for an American girl to go in the national pastime," she wrote in Billie Jean, the young athlete sought an alternate sport.
Afraid to swim and bored by golf, she was left with tennis—"what else could a little girl do if she wasn't afraid to sweat?" she wrote in her 1982 autobiography. Her parents signed her up for instruction with the Long Beach city recreation program, where she borrowed a racquet and received free lessons. At the time, however, tennis was mostly an activity for the elite, and the adolescent felt out of place among her teammates. For one thing, King wore eyeglasses to correct her 20-40 vision. In addition, at 5 feet, 41/2 inches, she struggled with weight problems. Her knee problems would require many surgeries. And as if those obstacles weren't enough, her family could not afford the traditional tennis whites, leaving her to play in a blouse and shorts her mother had made. Though fiercely competitive and gifted, King had to sit out the photo session of her peers in the Southern California Junior Championships because of her homespun outfit. Not yet a teen, she had already felt the stings of exclusion.
Career of Firsts
Playing with the cheaper nylon instead of gut strings and enduring the snobbery of players groomed at elite country clubs, she won her first junior championship at age 14. She told her family of her intention to one day win Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tourney.
A year following her first big win, King received a coaching offer from tennis legend Alice Marble, the lone voice to stand up to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in 1950 and insist the organization rescind its policy of segregation. Throughout the late 1950s, King spent weekends with Marble, whose biggest challenge was getting King off the court to attend
to her schoolwork. With additional coaching by Frank Brennan, she qualified for women's play at Wimbledon in 1961. She was only 18.
Though she suffered the first bout of what would become chronic sinus trouble in England, she was clearly at home at Wimbledon. King and Hantze, also 18, became the youngest team to win women's doubles there. They repeated as champions in 1962.
|1943||Born November 22 in Long Beach, California|
|1954||First formal tennis lessons|
|1958||Works with coach Alice Marble|
|1964||Travels to Australia to work with coach Mervyn Rose; wins U.S. doubles|
|1965||Marries Larry W. King|
|1970||Helps organize the first all-women's pro tennis tournament|
|1974||Founds Women's Sports Foundation|
|1975||With husband, helps launch women's professional softball team|
|1980||President of Women's Tennis Association, which she cofounds|
|1983||Retires from singles competition|
|1983-84||Played World Team Tennis for Chicago Fire|
|1987||King and husband Larry divorce|
|1995-96, 1998||Captain of Federation Cup team|
|1996, 2000||Captain of U.S. Olympic tennis team|
Returning from Europe, she graduated from Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences, which she financed with her job as a playground instructor. She was playing at the highest amateur level and was generating ample media attention, but at the time, athletic scholarships for women were practically unheard of. In 1965 she married Larry W. King, a pre-law student at the College of Applied Arts and Sciences and a year behind her. The two had been dating for about two years, with periods of interruptions, including a three-month break when she went to Australia on an all-expenses-paid trip to study with coach Mervyn Rose, former Davis Cup player for Australia. Rose changed King's forehand and service.
During the first six months of their marriage, King stayed home in an attempt to be "a good wife," as was the expectation at the time. But she was miserable. With her husband's full support, she started hitting a few balls around again and soon completely dedicated herself to tennis. A year later, she won her first Wimbledon singles. (The prize: a self-confidence boost and a gift certificate for tennis wear.) In 1966 she and doubles partner Rosemary Casals won the U.S. hard-court and indoor tournaments. In 1967 Casals and King took the doubles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the South African championship. King and Casals dominated women's doubles for years, becoming the only doubles team to have won American titles on grass, clay, indoor, and hard surfaces.
King even played a tournament while suffering from typhus. The Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year in 1967 for defending her Wimbledon singles title, which she would repeat again in 1968. Other wins of the decade included U.S. Open, French Open, and Australian Open titles. With such recognition and nine Wimbledon titles under her belt, King felt confident enough to approach the USLTA with champion Rod Laver and insist on prize money for tournament winners. Laver and King felt they should be fairly compensated; otherwise, the sport would remain available only to wealthy players. She referred to "shamateurism" as the USLTA's practice of paying top players under the table to guarantee their entry into association-sponsored tournaments.
Though the USLTA finally gave in to their demands—the "Open Era" began in 1968—the prize money it offered women was consistently, and steeply, far less than male players. When she won the Italian Open in 1970 she received $600; her male counterpart, Ilie Nastase, won $3,500. The men's purse in the Pacific Southwest Championships that year was $12,500 to the women's $1,500. Nonetheless, King in 1971 became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a season of competition. That year she won again at Wimbledon (mixed doubles), and the U.S. Open (singles, mixed doubles).
Champions Women's Rights
King took a stand on the red-hot issue of abortion, when in 1971 she admitted to having had one. Despite the highly personal revelation, she felt defensive about publicity regarding hers and her husband's private life.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1958||Southern California Junior champion|
|1961||Wimbledon doubles champion with Karen Hantze; enrolls in Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences|
|1966||Wimbledon singles, U.S. indoor singles, and U.S. hard-court and indoor doubles tournaments (with Rosemary Casals) champion|
|1967||U.S. singles champion; Wimbledon singles champion and doubles champion (with Casals), U.S. Open, and South Africa champion; French mixed doubles champion; awarded Woman Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press|
|1968||U.S. singles champion; Wimbledon singles and doubles champion (with Casals); Australian singles and mixed doubles champion; U.S. indoor doubles champion|
|1970||Wimbledon doubles champion (with Casals); French mixed doubles champion; Italian singles and doubles champion; Wightman Cup|
|1971||U.S. singles and mixed doubles champion; Wimbledon doubles and mixed doubles champion|
|1971||First female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money|
|1972||Named first Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated ; "Tennis Player of the Year" by Sports magazine; U.S. doubles champion; Wimbledon singles and doubles champion (with Betty Stove); French singles and doubles champion|
|1973||Wins Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs; U.S. mixed doubles champion; Wimbledon singles, doubles (with Casals), and mixed doubles champion|
|1973-75, 1980-81||President, Women's Tennis Association, which she co-founds|
|1974||U.S. singles and doubles champion; Wimbledon mixed doubles champion; plays World Team Tennis for Philadelphia Freedoms; first woman to coach a professional team (Philadelphia Freedoms)|
|1975||Wimbledon singles champion; announces partial retirement|
|1975-78||Plays World Team Tennis for New York Sets/Apples|
|1976||U.S. mixed doubles champion; captain of Federation Cup team; named Woman of the Year by Time magazine|
|1978||U.S. doubles champion|
|1979||Wimbledon doubles champion with Martina Navratilova, breaking the record for most career wins at Wimbledon; Wightman Cup|
|1980||U.S. doubles champion|
|1981||Plays World Team Tennis for Oakland Breakers; is sued by Marlyn Barnett, leading to publicity about her sexuality|
|1982||Plays World Team Tennis for Los Angeles Strings|
|1984||First woman commissioner (World Team Tennis) in professional sports history|
|1987||Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame|
|1990||Listed as one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" by Life magazine; inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame|
|1994||Ranked No. 5 in Sports Illustrated' s "Top 40 Athletes" for significantly altering/elevating sports the last four decades|
|1997||Named one of the "Ten Most Powerful Women in America" by Harper's Bazaar magazine; named one of the "Twenty-five Most Influential Women in America" by World Almanac|
|1998||First athlete to receive the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, given by Hobart and William Smith College to a woman whose life exemplifies outstanding service to humanity|
|1999||Wins the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for her fight to bring equality to women's sports||2002||Receives the Radcliffe Medal, awarded annually to a person whose life and work has significantly improved society|
In 1972 she won the French Open and Wimbledon singles, ending a three-year drought in the latter. She also won her third U.S. Open singles title, which awarded her $10,000. Nastase, the men's singles champion, won $25,000. King was irate. It was hardly the first time she recognized prize-money disparity, but it was the last time she would remain quiet about it. When she complained to the U.S. tennis establishment, she was told that men were paid more because few people watch women's tennis. But King insisted women's tennis enjoyed many enthusiastic fans. In fact, when Hyams interviewed King in 1975 in a hotel coffee shop, he says they were interrupted half a dozen times by autograph seekers, mostly men.
King continued to sweep up Grand Slam titles and break ground for her sport. Fed up with the tennis establishment's attitude and lack of financial commitment to women's tennis, she took action. After she and a small group of other players refused to play a tournament where the women's prize money was one eighth of the men's, King organized the first women's-only professional tennis tournament. When the nine defectors were threatened with suspension by the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), King, with the help of World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman, put together their own prize money. The nine players all agreed to accept a $1 contract from Heldman, who secured sponsorship from Philip Morris Company just as it was to target a new cigarette, Virginia Slims, to women. Thus the Virginia Slims Championships were launched in Houston. By 1973 the tour covered 22 cities and had $775,000 in prize money. After its 1994 season, the Slims became the Women's International Tennis Association Tour Championship.
In 1973 King was elected first president of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), a players' union. She also created "team tennis," America's only professional co-ed team sport, and became the first woman to coach a professional co-ed team when she signed on with the Philadelphia Freedoms. But she cemented her status as a heroine of the women's movement with her match against Bobby Riggs, a self-proclaimed "male chauvinist pig," who claimed even a mediocre male player, such as the 55-year-old Riggs himself, could beat the best female player, regardless of age.
Riggs, who won Wimbledon (1939) and the U.S. national championships (1939, 1941), had beaten Australian Margaret Smith Court in May 1973. So when King took up his challenge in September, in an exhibition that became known as the Battle of the Sexes, the stakes were higher. King says she was sick to her stomach before the match, which was unusual for her. "Sissy Bug will murder this Riggs," her father told Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick. "I hope Sissy shuts him up good. … Sissy will kill him, bet you five."
Bill Moffitt was right. His daughter ruled the court that night. Before 30,472 fans (a record crowd for one tennis match) in the Houston Astrodome, and 40 million television viewers, King beat Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and became a potent symbol of the women's movement. King went home with the $100,000 purse, the largest amount of prize money ever paid for a single match. "Billie Jean King didn't just raise consciousness, which was the feminist mantra then," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. "No, she absolutely changed consciousness." In 2001, the TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby dramatized this event, with Holly Hunter playing King, Ron Silver as Riggs.
A Safer Place
Between 1961 and 1979, King collected six singles, ten doubles, and four mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon, and reached 27 final events. King, the only woman to win U.S. singles titles on all surfaces (grass, clay, indoor, hard), holds a singles title in every Grand Slam event. Even upon her 1983 retirement, King was still ranked 13th in the world. King and Rosemary Casals virtually dominated women's doubles. King took numerous late-career wins, including the 1979 Wimbledon doubles and 1980 U.S. Open doubles, both with Martina Navratilova . She helped the U.S. to seven Federation Cup victories. During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, King coached the American women's team, which included Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles , and Venus Williams and Serena Williams . The team came home with two golds (Venus Willams in singles, Venus and Serena Williams in doubles) and a bronze (Monica Seles in singles).
In 1999, King urged Wimbledon officials to set the prize money for women ($651,000) equal to that of men ($724,000). "Treating women as less valuable than men generates ill-will that is disproportionate to the amount of money you are saving," she urged in her statement.
Related Biography: Tennis Promoter Gladys Heldman
Tennis promoter Gladys Medalie Heldman grew up as an non-athletic, intellectual young woman. A 1942 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Heldman received her M.A. in medieval studies the following year from the University of California, Berkeley.
Born May 13, 1922 in New York, Heldman took up tennis late, after her marriage in 1947 to Julius Heldman, the 1936 left-handed U.S. Junior champion. She quickly adapted, playing in the U.S. Championships from 1949 to 1953, and at Wimbledon in 1954. Both her daughters, Trixie and Julie, held national junior rankings. Julie won the Italian Open in 1969 and ranked fifth in the world that year and again in 1974. Heldman achieved USTA rankings in the top ten in women's 35 doubles, women's 45 doubles, and mother-daughter events.
In 1953, she founded World Tennis magazine, which she edited until 1972. Heldman aligned herself and her magazine with the female players, most notably Billie Jean King and Rosemary Casals, King's doubles partner, who rebelled against the male tennis establishment. Heldman and the "Houston Nine" (King, Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Nancy Richey, Kristy Pigeon and Judy Tegart Dalton) departed from the traditional, mixed-sex tournaments and in 1970 set up a women's-only tour, which, with backing from friend Joe Cullman, chairman of Philip Morris, became the hugely successful Virginia Slims Championships.
Shortly thereafter, Heldman brought the first women's pro tour to Europe in 1971 and Japan in 1972. She has received numerous awards, including the U.S. Tennis Writers award in 1965, World Championship Tennis award in 1980, and the Women's Sports Foundation award in 1982. In 1979 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She wrote three books on tennis and one novel, The Harmonetics Investigation (Crown, 1979). She lives with her husband in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Always outspoken on women's rights, King was initially reticent about gay rights. Then, former lover Marilyn Barnett, a Beverly Hills hairdresser, "outed" her in 1981. King has long been openly gay, though the attention has cost her about $1.5 million in endorsements. She lost sponsorship of the women's tour after publicly acknowledging her homosexuality. King, never fully comfortable living her life in public, is more an effective organizer and strategist. She told Michele Kort of The Advocate magazine she was trying to work within corporations to get them to set up domestic-partner benefits. "I think it's better if you do those things internally, rather than talking about them publicly," she said.
Clearly wounded by Barnett's palimony suit, King remained silent about her sexuality for quite a while, much to the criticism of gay activists. She said she feared a backlash. "It's really tough if I hurt the business [team tennis]," she told Kort, "because it ends up hurting others, not just me." Still, King said gay young athletes being open about their sexuality "will help set them free." She added, "Each person's circumstances are unique, so I think it's impossible to judge whether another person should come out. You just hope they will on their own time and their own terms. And, hopefully, we'll make the world a safer place so young people will feel safe to deal with their sexuality and whatever else."
King has supported various initiatives on behalf of tennis, sports, health, education, women, minorities, gays and lesbians, children, and families. Today she remains an activist for health, fitness, education, and social change. She sits on the board of directors for the WTA, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the National AIDS Fund. She is also the national ambassador for AIM, which assists handicapped children, and is a member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. King has regularly worked as a sports commentator for numerous networks and cable stations. Most recently, King was captain of the U.S. Federation Cup team for the USTA. Her status as a catalyst has resonated beyond the tennis courts. Her outspokenness boosted measures such as the 1972 enactment of Title IX, which helped assure gender equity in sports funding and participation among female students. As for women's tennis itself, the changes are so immense there will be no going back.
Address: c/o Diane Stone, 960 Harlem Ave., Suite 983, Glenview, Ill 60025. Fax: 847-904-7362. Email: [email protected]
SELECTED WRITINGS BY KING:
(With Kim Chapin) Tennis to Win. New York: Harper, 1970.
(With Joe Hyams) Billie Jean King's Secrets of Winning Tennis. New York: Holt, 1974.
(With Kim Chapin) Billie Jean. New York: Harper, 1974.
(With Greg Hoffman) Tennis Love: A Parents'Guide to the Sport. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
How to Play Mixed Doubles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
(With Reginald Brace) Play Better Tennis, New York: Smithmark, 1981.
(With Frank Deford) Billie Jean. New York: Grenada, 1982.
Where Is She Now?
Though retired from competitive tennis, Billie Jean King can still be found on the courts, whether it's coaching the 2000 Olympic women's tennis team or teaching inner city kids the elements of a strong backhand. One of the tennis champion's most recent ventures has been Women's Sports Legends (WSL), of which King is a founding member. It arranges events featuring its "legendary" members, including Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Rosemary Casals, Chris Evert, Virginia Wade, Wendy Turnbull, and Zina Garrison. WSL aims to promote its shareholders as a public relations agency would, but with its members having more control over the decisions that affect their lives. The company also attempts to sustain the camaraderie the women members developed while on the pro tour. Recent awards for King include the International Olympic Committee's Women and Sport World Trophy, the National Football League's Players Association Lifetime Achievement Award, and honorary degrees from Trinity College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts. King resides in New York City and Chicago.
(With Cynthia Starr) We've Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
American Decades CD-ROM. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
The Bodywise Woman: Reliable Information about Physical Activity and Health (with a foreward by Billie Jean King). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 1993.
Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
Gay and Lesbian Biography. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Great Women in Sports, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
"American Diabetes Association and Billie Jean King Foundation Present the Fourth Annual 2001 Donnelly Award Winners."PR Newswire (August 7, 2001).
"Billie Jean King: A Candid Conversation with the Contentious Superstar of Women's Tennis."Playboy (March 1975).
Braley, Sarah J. F. "Legends of the Court." Meetings and Conventions (August 1997): 19.
Kort, Michele. The Advocate. (August 18, 1998): 40.
Kort, Michele. The Advocate. (September 26, 2000): 34.
Richmond, Ray. "When Billie Beat Bobby," Hollywood Reporter. (April 16, 2001): 10.
"Williams Sisters to Play for USA Olympic Team in Sydney, Australia." Jet. (August 21, 2000): 46.
Barnard College. www.barnard.columbia.edu/(December 22, 2002; December 23, 2002; December 26, 2002; December 29, 2002).
Baseball Library.com. Randy Moffitt Statistics, www.pubdim.net/(December 22, 2002).
Billie Jean King Foundation. vpr2.admin.arizona.edu/ (December 22, 2002).
Daily Celebrations. www.dailycelebrations.com/(December 22, 2002).
Delaware Smash World Team Tennis. www.delawaresmash.ck/king.htm (December 23, 2002).
Gale Free Resources. www.gale.com/(December 27, 2002).
Infoplease.com, Bobby Riggs Profile. www.infoplease.com/(December 26, 2002).
International Tennis Hall of Fame, Billie Jean King, Gladys Heldman and Mervyn Rose Profiles. www.tennisfame.org/(December 23, 2002).
"Radcliffe Medalist 2002—Billie Jean King." Radcliffe College, www.radcliffe.edu/(December 23, 2002).
Tennis Corner, Billie Jean King Career Highlights. www.tenniscorner.net/(December 23, 2002).
"There She Is, Ms. America." CNN/SI, sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ (December 27, 2002).
William and Mary College. www.wm.edu/(December 27, 2002).
Wimbledon Championships. www.wimbledon.org/(December 26, 2002).
Women's Sports Legends Online. www.wslegends.com/(December 23, 2002; December 30, 2002).
World Team Tennis. www.worldteamtennis.com/(December 23, 2002).
Sketch by Jane Summer
King, Billie Jean
I nternational tennis star Billie Jean King won a record twenty Wimbledon championships and helped win equal treatment for women in sports.
Encouraged by her parents
Billie Jean (Moffitt) King was born on November 22, 1943, in the southern California city of Long Beach. She was the first of Willard and Betty Moffitt's two children. Her father was an engineer for the fire department, and her mother was a receptionist at a medical center. Both she and her brother, Randy, who would become a professional baseball player, excelled in athletics as children and were encouraged by their parents. At fire department picnics, her father's coworkers always wanted Billie Jean to play on their softball team.
Billie Jean developed an interest in tennis at age eleven and saved money to buy her first racket. When she was fourteen years old she won her first championship in a southern California tournament. She began receiving coaching at age fifteen from Alice Marble, a famous player from the 1930s. The product of a working-class family, Billie Jean soon found herself caught up in a country club sport. Despite her success on the court, the fact that tennis was mainly geared toward men would prove a personal challenge to her in later years.
In 1961 Billie Jean competed in her first Wimbledon tournament in England. Although she was defeated in the women's singles, she teamed with Karen Hautze to win the doubles (two-person team) title. She married attorney Larry King in 1965. In 1966 she won her first Wimbledon singles championship and repeated in 1967. That same year she also won the U.S. Open singles title at Forest Hills, New York.
In 1968 King won both the women's singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon. In 1971 she became the first woman athlete to win more than one hundred thousand dollars in a single year. It was 1972, however, that would be King's banner year. She won the women's singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the French Open. (These three tournaments plus the Australian Open now make up the "Grand Slam" of tennis.) For this feat, Sports Illustrated magazine named her "Sportswoman of the Year," and Sports magazine deemed her "Tennis Player of the Year."
In 1973 King again won Wimbledon's singles and doubles championships. It was then that she began to openly criticize the low prize money offered to women competitors. She noted that women were receiving far less than men for what she considered equal ability and effort. Her statements on this issue led to the offer from a major U.S. drug manufacturer of a large sum of money to make the prize money at the U.S. Open equal for both men and women.
A victory for women's liberation
King's career coincided with the women's liberation (feminist) movement of the 1970s. Her working-class upbringing in southern California and the second-class treatment she received as a professional athlete made her a natural spokesperson for the movement. Her role as a leader in the feminist cause reached its peak in September 1973, when she faced the 1939 men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs (1918–1995) in a nationally televised match at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. King easily beat the aging Riggs and emerged as the winner of what had been billed as the "Battle of the Sexes."
In 1975 King won her sixth Wimbledon singles championship, but she announced that she would no longer compete in major events because of injuries to her knees. In all she won a record twenty Wimbledon championships (including singles, doubles, and mixed doubles). Today, women competing in professional athletic contests owe much to Billie Jean King. With her outstanding play and forceful attitude, she earned them the right to compete for the same money as men.
King helped to found the Women's Tennis Association and served as its president from 1973 to 1975 and again from 1980 to 1981. After retiring from professional tennis in 1984, King and her husband have promoted coed (open to both men and women) team tennis. King has also been active in charitable events. In 1995 she joined the Virginia Slims legends tour along with Chris Evert (1954–) and Martina Navratilova (1956–) to raise money for the fight against acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; a disease that destroys the body's ability to fight off infection). King is also an investor in Discovery Zone, a chain of children's "play lands" that promotes the equal athletic abilities of boys and girls.
King continues to be associated with the sport as a broadcaster, teacher, and coach. In 1999 and 2000 she coached the U.S. women's team, whose members included Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Jennifer Capriati, to victories in the international Federation Cup tournament.
For More Information
King, Billie Jean. Billie Jean. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
King, Billie Jean. Secrets of Winning Tennis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Marble, Alice, and Dale Leatherman. Courting Danger. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Rappoport, Ken. Girls Rule!: The Glory and Spirit of Women in Sports. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishers, 2000.
King, Billie Jean
KING, Billie Jean
KING, Billie Jean (b. 22 November 1943), tennis champion, women's rights activist, feminist, promoter of women's professional and amateur sports at all levels.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born in Long Beach, California. Her mother, Betty Jerman Moffitt, was a housewife and her father, Willis B. Moffitt, a fireman. She was the older of two children (her brother Randy Moffitt pitched for the San Francisco Giants). As a youth Billie Jean played softball, baseball, and football, and earned the tag of tomboy. She was not comfortable with this label since it implied masculinity and suspicious sexuality. At her parents' urging she tried the "girl's sport" of tennis at age eleven and took to it unequivocally; that first year she handily defeated a college junior in straight sets.
In 1959 King's impressive loss to Wimbledon champion Maria Bueno at the eastern grass court championships convinced coach Frank Brennan to lure her to his Saddle River, New Jersey, tennis school. In 1961 King teamed with Karen Hantze to win the women's doubles at Wimbledon, the youngest team ever to do so. That was the first of twenty-one Wimbledon titles King won between 1961 and 1979.
King was ranked first in women's tennis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She earned $100,000, unprecedented for a female tennis player, but bemoaned the far greater prize monies available to male professionals. She co-organized the Virginia Slims tournament in opposition to the regular tour to raise salaries and administrative control. Her own game was unparalled: she won singles titles at Wimbledon in 1966–1968, 1972, 1973, and 1975; at the U.S. Open in 1967, 1971, 1972, and 1974; at the French Open in 1972; and at the Australian Open in 1968.
In 1965 King married Larry King, a college boyfriend. In 1973 King accepted the challenge posed by Bobby Riggs, age fifty-five and a former Wimbledon champion, to compete at the Houston Astrodome in the much ballyhooed "Battle of the Sexes." He had already defeated one female tennis star and King fully understood the symbolic meaning of their match amid mid-1970s gender equity political struggles. He appeared wearing a pig snout (as in male chauvinist pig) and she, playing to the media, was carried in on a platform by four beefcake men dressed as slaves. She beat him soundly and became the spokesperson for parity issues of pay, opportunity, and respect in women's sports.
On 5 May 1981, King was outed as a lesbian by her former hairdresser/secretary and former lover, Marilyn Barnett, with whom she had been involved since 1972. Using love letters and her life as a part of a romantic couple with King on the tour as proof of their bond, Barnett argued in a now-infamous palimony suit that she was entitled to economic compensation as a spouse. Larry King learned of their affair in 1978 when Billie Jean confided her problems with Marilyn to him. He stayed loyal to her while, by Billie Jean's recounting, Barnett's monetary and personal demands grew increasingly unreasonable; Barnett refused to move out of King's Malibu home or return the love letters from years earlier. When Billie Jean called a press conference on 8 May 1981 she cried before the press and admitted to her lesbian affair, calling it a regrettable mistake. With Larry at her side, she laid claim to heterosexuality and portrayed Barnett as unstable. This posture disappointed and infuriated many gay and lesbian activists as well as feminists who had come to respect her as a leader and an outspoken advocate of social change. King was openly ridiculed for her unwillingness to assume a defiantly lesbian-and-proud posture. Her concerns lay with the damage that would be done to the blossoming women's tennis tour and the shadows of doubt about "hetero-normalcy" that would further surround women athletes. She preferred then to claim temporary bisexuality and swear her marital loyalty to Larry. She was also fully aware of how rapidly her own endorsements would disappear (and they did). She was a subject of ridicule and tawdriness in numerous tabloid newspapers, all which used her lesbian affair to discredit women's tennis and women's sports in general. She bore this strain and harassment with grace and fortitude. She retired from professional tennis in 1984.
Scorned in large part by the lesbian and gay communities for her unwillingness to be openly gay, she reversed that posture in 1994 when during a Gay [Olympics] Games fundraising event she acknowledged tennis champion Martina Navratilova—openly lesbian for years—for Navratilova's acceptance of her own sexuality. King divorced her husband in 1981 and in 1998 embraced the lesbian (versus bisexual) label at age fifty-five. Her public yet closeted struggle with her lesbian identity was by King's own evaluation the most difficult issue in her life.
King's legacy to the LGB community is immense: she founded the proactive Women's Sports Foundation, openly advocates for increased opportunities for girls and women in sports (pre–and post–Title IX legislation), and serves as an understated example of the personal pressure, economic loss, and personal coming-to-terms that
embracing a public lesbian identity necessitates. Her honors continue to mount: she was a 1987 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and a 1990 inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1998 she founded the Billie Jean King Foundation, which provides grant monies to women, gays, lesbians, and multicultural groups and works to raise monies and consciousness about AIDS. She also coached the 1996 and 2000 Olympic women's tennis teams.
Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. New York: Visible Ink, 1996.
King, Billie Jean, and Frank DeFord. Billie Jean King.New York: Viking, 1982.
Taylor, Anne. "The Battles of Billie Jean King." Women's Sports and Fitness (September/October 1998): 131–34, 168–171.
Susan E. Cayleff
see alsoicons; sports.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King
International tennis star Billie Jean King (born 1943) did much to win equal treatment for women in sports.
Billie Jean (Moffit) King was born on November 22, 1943, in the southern California city of Long Beach. Both she and her brother, Randy, who would become a professional baseball player, excelled in athletics as children and were encouraged by their father, an engineer for a fire department.
Billie Jean developed an interest in tennis at an early age and saved money to buy her first racket. When she was 14 years old she won her first championship in a southern California tournament. The product of a working-class family, she soon found herself enmeshed in a country club sport. Despite her success on the court, the fact that tennis was oriented toward and dominated by men would prove a personal challenge to her in ensuing years.
The First of Many Wimbledon Wins
In 1961 Billie Jean competed in her first Wimbledon tournament in England. Although she was defeated in the women's singles, she teamed with Karen Hautze to win the doubles title. In 1966 she won her first Wimbledon singles championship and repeated in 1967. That same year she won the U.S. Open singles title at Forest Hills, New York.
Billie Jean Moffit married attorney Larry King in 1968 and turned professional the same year that the championships at Wimbledon were opened to professionals as well as amateurs. That year she won both the women's singles and doubles. In 1971 she became the first woman athlete to win more than $100,000 in a single year. It was 1972, however, that would be King's banner year. She won the Wimbledon women's singles, the U.S. Open singles, and the French Open. (These three tournaments plus the Australian Open now constitute the "Grand Slam" of tennis.) For this feat, Sports Illustrated magazine named her "Sportswoman of the Year," and Sports magazine deemed her "Tennis Player of the Year."
In 1973 King again won Wimbledon's singles and doubles championships. It was then that she began to openly criticize the scanty prize money offered to women competitors. She noted that women were receiving far less than men for what she considered equal ability and effort. Her efforts in this concern led to the offer from a major U.S. drug manufacturer of a sizable sum of money to make the purses at Forest Hills equal for both men and women.
A Victory for Women's Liberation
King's career coincided with the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. Her working-class upbringing in southern California and the perceived slights she experienced as a professional appeared to make her a natural spokesperson for the movement. Her status as a leader in the feminist cause reached a zenith in September of 1973, when she faced the 1939 men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised match at the Houston Astrodome. King easily beat the aging Riggs and emerged as the winner of what had been billed as the "Battle of the Sexes." (Riggs died in October of 1995 at the age of 77.)
In 1975 King won her sixth Wimbledon singles championship, but she announced that she would no longer compete in major events because of recurring injuries to her knees. In all she won a record 20 Wimbledon championships (singles, doubles, and mixed doubles).
Today, women competing in professional athletic contests owe much to Billie Jean King. With her outstanding play and aggressive attitude, she earned them the right to compete for the same money prizes as men.
King helped to found the Women's Tennis Association and served as its president from 1973 to 1975 and again from 1980 to 1981. She retired from professional tennis in 1984. Since then, she has served as a tennis commentator, teacher and coach.
King and her husband have promoted coed team tennis. King has also been active in charitable events. In 1995, she joined the Virginia Slims legends tour along with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to raise money for the fight against AIDS. King is an investor in Discovery Zone, a chain of children's "play lands" which promotes the equal athletic abilities of boys and girls.
Billie Jean, published in 1982, is an open and candid autobiography that devotes as much time to her personal life as it does to her professional career. Billie Jean King's Secrets of Winning Tennis (1974) is an illustrated course of instruction designed expressly for women.
For further reading see: We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis, by Billie Jean King and Cynthia Starr, McGraw-Hill, 1988; and Courting Danger by Alice Marble and Dale Leatherman, St. Martin's Press, 1991. For periodicals, see: "The Once and Future King," by Joel Drucker in Women's Sports and Fitness, December 1992, vol. 14, no. 8, pp. 78-79; "Team Tennis: Get Involved!" by Graeme Joffe in Parks and Recreation, May 1992, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 36-40; and "Racket Science" by Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated, April 29, 1991, vol 74, no. 16, pp. 66-80. □