King, Billie Jean (1943—)
King, Billie Jean (1943—)
American champion tennis player and founder of the Women's Tennis Association who fought to ensure women's access to equal purses in major tournaments and helped establish a separate professional women's tennis tour. Name variations: Billie Jean Moffitt; Mrs. L.W. King. Born Billie Jean Moffitt on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California; daughter of Willard J. Moffitt (a firefighter) and Betty (Jerman) Moffitt; attended school in Long Beach; graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, 1961; attended California State College (now University), Los Angeles, 1961–66; married Larry King, on September 17, 1965; no children.
Member of the Southern California Junior Wightman Cup team (1959–60); achieved first national tennis ranking (1959); won women's doubles at first Wimbledon (1961); named Associated Press Women's Athlete of the Year (1967); turned professional (1968); suspended by U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (1970); played key role in establishing the first Virginia Slims tournament (1971); named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year (1972); named Top Woman Athlete of the Year (1972); founded the Women's Tennis Association, played Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome, and repeated AP Women's Athlete of the Year award (1973); co-founded and published WomenSports magazine (1974); named Time magazine Woman of the Year (1976); named in controversial palimony suit (1981); international television sports commentary for NBC was expanded to coverage of male players (1982); elected to International Tennis Hall of Fame (1987); elected to National Women's Hall of Fame (1990).
Wimbledon singles (1966–68, 1972, 1973, 1975), doubles (1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970–73), mixed doubles (1967, 1973); U.S. Open singles (1967, 1971, 1972, 1974), doubles (1965, 1967, 1974, 1980), mixed doubles (1967, 1971, 1973); French Open singles and doubles (1972), mixed doubles (1967, 1970); Australian Open singles and mixed doubles (1968); Italian Open singles and doubles (1970); U.S. Hard Court singles (1966); West German Open singles (1971); South African Open singles (1966, 1967, 1969); U.S. Indoor singles (1966–68, 1971); U.S. Clay singles.
On September 20, 1973, the circus came to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The event featured Chinese rickshaws, Egyptian litters, and a crowd of 30,472 in the stands, in addition to 50 million television viewers, a baby pig named Larimore Hustle and a giant Sugar Daddy sucker. But the main attraction, large enough to draw heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman to Houston to present the winner's check, was a five-set tennis match scheduled between Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King and aging hustler and Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs. How did a tennis match between this superlative player in her prime and a man 26 years her elder come to take on such importance? And what was the significance of King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory for women's tennis, women athletes in general and, in a larger sense, the women's movement in 1973? To understand fully takes a review of King's entire career.
Born in 1943, at the height of World War II, Billie Jean Moffitt grew up during the 1950s in Long Beach, California, in a family that she herself has described as "Exhibit A: American Dream, Southern California Division." Her father worked as a firefighter, and her mother worked inside the home, raising Billie Jean and her younger brother Randy, born in 1948. As she remembers it, the young Billie Jean Moffitt always knew that she would do something important with her life, preferably in athletics, a realm in which both she and her brother were gifted (he would later be a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants). Growing up, Billie Jean played football, ran track, and played softball on a team for girls 15 and younger in Long Beach's Houghton Park. After realizing that there was no future for a woman in football or softball, she asked her father what sports would be open to her as she grew older, and he suggested golf, swimming, or tennis. Billie Jean found golf too slow and never liked the water, so tennis became her choice.
After purchasing her first racquet for eight dollars with money she made doing odd jobs for the neighbors, ten-year-old Billie Jean began taking tennis lessons from Clyde Walker on the public courts at Houghton Park. She soon fell in love with the sport. After only three months of training, she reached the finals in her first tournament before losing 6-0, 6-0. From then on, Billie Jean was a fixture in Southern California tennis. She got her first taste of the tennis snobbery she would struggle against throughout her career when she played in the Girls' 13-Under singles at the Southern California Junior championships in June 1955. Perry T. Jones, president of the Southern California Tennis Association, refused to allow her to have her photograph taken with the other players because she was not wearing a tennis dress.
Over the next few years, Billie Jean played in and around Los Angeles while reading extensively about the game. In 1958, she was invited to attend the National Girls' 15-Under championships, and, thanks to financial support from the Long Beach Tennis Patrons, she and her mother made the trip to Middletown, Ohio, where she lost in the quarterfinals. Following that, she began to take lessons from Alice Marble , Wimbledon and U.S. champion during the 1930s, who encouraged Billie Jean to think like a winner. By 1959, she was a member of the Southern California Junior Wightman Cup team, traveling regularly on the Eastern tennis circuit, playing against teams of girls from other parts of the United States. That year, Billie Jean attained her first national ranking, placing #19 on the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) charts. In 1961, she made her first trip to England with doubles partner Karen Hantze . After winning the Queen's Club, the tournament immediately preceding Wimbledon, the two began to feel that they might have a chance at that most prestigious of tournaments. They were right. They beat Margaret Smith Court and Jan Lehane of Australia in straight sets, launching an unprecedented record of Wimbledon championships for Billie Jean.
In 1961, there were few opportunities for women tennis players to make money in their profession. The sport was in the grip of what Billie Jean has called "shamateurism," with top players receiving money under the table from tournament sponsors for appearances, as well as free racquets and other equipment from manufacturers, and small per diem fees from the national federations that controlled the sport. A few men had been able to earn a living by turning professional, at the cost of further chances at the major championships, but women were typically unable to accomplish even that. That autumn, Billie Jean entered Los Angeles State College, planning to play tennis part time. While there, she met her future husband and business partner, Larry King, and in the fall of 1964 she left for Australia to spend three months being coached by Mervyn Rose, determined to devote herself to tennis full time.
By the fall of 1965, King was sure she could be the #1 tennis player on the women's circuit, a position she achieved the following year when she won her first Wimbledon singles title. In 1967, she adopted a new stance, vocally representing all tennis players struggling to put forth the idea that they would play just as hard as professionals as they had as "ostensible" amateurs. "Nobody considers an amateur painter, or an amateur writer, or an amateur inventor necessarily more talented or dedicated than a professional," she said, so why insist that athletes not be paid for the entertainment they provide to a sports audience? In 1967, she expressed these views during her press conferences at the 1967 National championships at Forest Hills and was threatened with suspension by the USLTA if she continued to speak out against the rules of the game. Ultimately, King was not suspended, and she never hesitated thereafter to insist that athletes have the right
to earn a living through sport and to govern themselves through professional organizations.
Less than a month later, the British Lawn Tennis Association voted for open tennis, allowing both amateurs and professionals to compete against each other. Ironically, with the coming of the era of the open, the disparity between what the men and women could earn and the prize money they were offered became yet another injustice for King to address. In a shrewd assessment of the situation, she saw that professional women players must prove that they could attract an audience. Accordingly, she joined with Françoise Durr , Ann Jones , Rosemary Casals and six male touring professionals in the National Tennis League in traveling throughout Europe for the next two years, learning the business of tennis, promoting tournaments and handling the press at each stop. According to King, those two years taught crucial lessons that she applied in 1971, when the women began to run their own tour. Unfortunately, the stress put on her knees by that tour and the major tournaments she played during 1967 and 1968 also forced her to undergo the first of many knee operations in October 1968.
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When I die, at my funeral, nobody's going to talk about me. They're all just going to stand up and tell each other where they were the night I beat Bobby Riggs.
—Billie Jean King
By the fall of 1970, the new era of the tennis open had demonstrated to King and other women professionals that they were going to have to stand together to assert their right to fair treatment at tournaments. In a sport controlled by men, with tournaments run by men, the women often found themselves playing on outside courts in not-so-prime time and receiving relatively little public or financial credit despite their high-quality games. By that autumn, it was also evident that promoters were cutting back the number of tournaments that included women in order to reduce the women's share of the purses they would have to pay. According to King, the women players were initially not even asking for an equal share of tournament money, since they played best-of-three sets rather than the best-of-five sets played by the men. The fact that the women were not as physically strong as the men, and their games therefore not typically as heavy-hitting, was also seen as a justification for the lower purses. On the other hand, people did want to see the women play, which meant in King's mind that women's tennis was equal in entertainment value to men's tennis. During the last week of September 1970, to establish this point, King joined with Casals, Julie Heldman , Val Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, and Judy Dalton in signing contracts with World Tennis magazine to play in what was to become the first Virginia Slims tournament, to be held in Houston. Because the tournament was not sanctioned by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, all nine players were suspended. They responded by announcing an eight-tournament women's professional tennis circuit to be sponsored by World Tennis and Virginia Slims, to begin play in January 1971. King then took it upon herself to recruit other women to join the Virginia Slims tour, and although it was a struggle for the tour to survive through the early years, the players involved continued to promote their matches and encourage the growth of professional women's tennis for the sake of the next generation of women players.
By 1971, the money had begun to come in for Billie Jean King, who earned for the first time more than $100,000 playing tennis that year. The next year, she won over $100,000 in prize money again, regained her #1 ranking, and became the first Sportswoman of the Year ever named by Sports Illustrated. Thanks to her success and the arrival of new young tennis stars like Chris Evert , the women on the tour gained enough clout to require their own professional organization, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which King helped to found in 1973.
As King and other women tennis professionals forced the sports world to accept them as athletes and entertainers deserving fair treatment, women in other fields were demanding an end to sex discrimination. This so-called second wave of feminism demanded equal pay for equal work and, significantly for women athletes, equal access to opportunities for young girls to compete, breaking down the tradition that had limited girls' intramural games to times when boys were not using the facilities. As athletics had historically been extolled as a means for young boys to acquire the competitive spirit they would need later in life, people began to ask why girls should not also benefit from such competition. Those opposing women's sports argued that since women could not successfully compete with men, money and facilities should not be provided for young girls to perform in competitions that would necessarily be of inferior quality. In 1972, in response to demands that girls and young women be afforded more sports opportunities, Congress passed Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational institution. Thus, schools and colleges had to provide equal opportunity for sports involvement for all students. (Thousands of women active in college sports today have Title IX to thank.)
In light of the debate over the meaning and value of athletics for women and girls, the contest that took place at the Houston Astrodome between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in the fall of 1973 had broad significance—especially because Riggs had soundly beaten his first woman challenger, Margaret Smith Court, earlier that year. King believes that her victory over Riggs was not just a victory over one man but over the things for which he stood, including the notion that women could not compete equally with men in tennis or any other professional endeavor. "We proved we don't choke under pressure," she said. Fortunately for King, her experiences as a speaker for women's rights and the nascent Virginia Slims tour prepared her for the circus-like atmosphere of the Riggs match. She would need those skills once more.
In 1981, just as her tennis career was winding down, King was faced with a lawsuit brought by her former lover, Marilyn Barnett , who accused King of backing out of a commitment to support her for the rest of her life. The suit brought to public attention a matter in her private life that King would have preferred to keep private. Determined to handle Barnett's accusations in a straightforward manner, King once again showed courage in the face of adversity and an understanding of the importance of her place as a public representative for women's athletics. She handled the issue honestly before the press. By refusing to hide or avoid confrontation, King thus defused the situation with Barnett, whose suit was ultimately thrown out of court by a California judge. She also helped other athletes, such as Martina Navratilova , to face the media when their own sexual orientation became the subject of controversy. King acknowledged that the Barnett lawsuit cost her a great deal of money in endorsements, including a contract to represent an exclusive line of Wimbledon clothing that was never finalized and the cancellation of other clothing contracts. On the other hand, in 1982 the NBC network not only kept Billie Jean King as an announcer for its Wimbledon coverage but broke with tradition by using her for commentary on some of the men's matches.
After the 1973 Riggs match, King continued to play championship-caliber tennis throughout the decade. In 1975, she won her last Wimbledon singles final, but won the U.S. Open doubles title as late as 1980, 19 years after her first Wimbledon championship. Besides playing in major championships, she remained actively involved in the organization and promotion of TeamTennis, which she envisioned as an alternative way of showcasing tennis. Indeed, King argued that TeamTennis was a forum for new systems of scoring and for demonstrating that tennis should not be the sport of second chances that it traditionally had been. In recognition of her contributions to the game, Billie Jean King was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987; in recognition of her work on behalf of women, she was elected to the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1990, and received the Elizabeth Blackwell award in 1998. "Everything I do is about equal opportunity," she said. "Race, gender, sexual orientation. Let's get over it. Let's celebrate our differences."
Bartlett, Michael, and Bob Gillen, eds. The Tennis Book. NY: Arbor House, 1981.
"The Battle of the Sexes," in Newsweek. September 21, 1998, p. 90.
King, Billie Jean, with Cynthia Starr. We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
—— with Frank Deford. Billie Jean. NY: Viking Press, 1982.
—— with Kim Chapin. Billie Jean. NY: Harper & Row, 1974.
Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.
King, Billie Jean, and Fred Stolle, with Greg Hoffman. How to Play Mixed Doubles. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Wanda Ellen Wakefield , historian, State University of New York at Buffalo