Billie Jean King (née Moffitt) (born November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California) is a retired tennis player from the United States. She won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 Grand Slam women's doubles titles, and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. King has been an outspoken advocate against sexism in sports and society. The tennis match for which the public best remembers her is the "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973, in which she defeated Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon men's champion who had been one of the leading male players in the 1930s and 1940s.[1]

Personal life[edit | edit source]

Billie Jean King was born Billie Jean Moffitt. She was born into a conservative Methodist family, the daughter of a firefighter father[2] and housewife mother. Her younger brother Randy Moffitt grew up to become a professional baseball player, pitching for 12 years in the major leagues for the San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, and Toronto Blue Jays.[3]

King attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School.[4] She then attended California State University at Los Angeles (CSULA) because her parents could not afford Stanford or UCLA. Even at CSULA, King had to work two jobs to pay her way.[5]

She married Lawrence King in Long Beach, California on September 17, 1965.[6] In 1971, she had an Abortion, which was revealed to the public in a Ms. Magazine article in 1972 by Lawrence without consulting Billie Jean in advance.[7] King said in her 1982 autobiography that she decided to have an abortion because she believed her marriage was not, at that time, solid enough to bring a child into her family.[8] Billie Jean and Lawrence divorced in 1987.

By 1968, King realized that she was interested in women,[7] and in 1971, King began an intimate relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. King acknowledged the relationship when it became public in a May 1981 lawsuit, becoming the first prominent professional female athlete to come out as gay.[9] King said that she had wanted to retire from competitive tennis in 1981 but could not afford to because of the lawsuit. "Within 24 hours [of the lawsuit being filed], I lost all my endorsements; I lost everything. I lost $2 million at least, because I had longtime contracts. I had to play just to pay for the lawyers. In three months I went through $500,000. I was in shock. I didn't make $2 million in my lifetime, so it's all relative to what you make."[10] King said in 1998 that Martina Navratilova was not supportive when King was outed, resulting in their relationship having a "very bad five years."[11] Speaking about the lawsuit in 2007, 26 years after it was filed, King said, "It was very hard on me because I was outed and I think you have to do it in your own time. Fifty per cent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13, I was in the other 50%. I would never have married Larry if I’d known. I would never have done that to him. I was totally in love with Larry when I was 21."[9] Concerning the personal cost of concealing her sexuality for so many years, King said,

I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic and I was in the closet. As well as that, I had people tell me that if I talked about what I was going through, it would be the end of the women's tour. I couldn't get a closet deep enough. I've got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic. If you speak with gays, bisexuals, lesbians and transgenders, you will find a lot of homophobia because of the way we all grew up. One of my big goals was always to be honest with my parents and I couldn't be for a long time. I tried to bring up the subject but felt I couldn't. My mother would say, "We’re not talking about things like that," and I was pretty easily stopped because I was reluctant anyway. I ended up with an eating disorder that came from trying to numb myself from my feelings. I needed to surrender far sooner than I did. At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn't have regrets any more.[9]

She is a friend of Elton John, and was a friend of the late Charles M. Schulz.

In 1999, King was elected to serve on the Board of Directors of Philip Morris Incorporated, garnering some criticism from anti-tobacco groups.[12] She no longer serves in that capacity.

King appeared as a judge on Law & Order, one of her favorite television shows, on April 27, 2007.

King currently resides in New York and Chicago[13] with partner Ilana Kloss.[14]

Tennis career[edit | edit source]

Playing style and personality[edit | edit source]

King learned to play tennis on the public courts of Long Beach, California.[15] She was an aggressive, hard-hitting net-rusher,[1] with excellent speed. Chris Evert, however, said about King, "Her weakness is her impatience."[16]

Concerning her motivations in life and tennis, King said, "Any time you're satisfied with mediocrity, any time you take away incentive from human beings, you've blown it. I'm a perfectionist much more than I'm a super competitor, and there's a big difference there.... I've been painted as a person who only competes. ... But most of all, I get off on hitting a shot correctly. ... Any woman who wants to achieve anything has to be aggressive and tough, but the press never sees us as multidimensional. They don't see the emotions, the downs...."[17] In a 1984 interview just after she had turned 40, King said, "Sometimes when I'm watching someone like Martina [Navratilova], I remember how nice it was to be No. 1. Believe me, it's the best time in your life. Don't let anyone ever tell you different. But then I think about the emotional and physical effort it takes to be No. 1, and I realize it's not there anymore. I know that, and it's OK. It's part of the process. My only regret is that I had to do too much off the court. Deep down, I wonder how good I really could have been if I [had] concentrated just on tennis."[18]

Julie Heldman, who frequently played King but never felt close to her, said about King's personality, "One of the reasons I've never gotten close to Billie Jean is that I've never felt strong enough to survive against that overwhelming personality of hers. People talk about me being the smart one. Let me tell you, Billie Jean's the smartest one, the cleverest one you'll ever see. She was the one who was able to channel everything into winning, into being the most consummate tennis player."[19] Kristen Kemmer Shaw, another frequent opponent of King, said, "For a time, I think I was as close to Billie Jean as anyone ever was. But as soon as I got to the point where I could read her too well, she tried to dissociate the relationship. She doesn't want to risk appearing weak in front of anybody. She told me once that if you want to be the best, you must never let anyone, anyone, know what you really feel. You see, she told me, they can't hurt you if they don't know."[19] King once said, "Victory is fleeting. Losing is forever."[20]

Concerning the qualities of a champion tennis player, King said,

The difference between me at my peak and me in the last few years of my career is that when I was the champion I had the ultimate in confidence. When I decided, under pressure ... that I had to go with my very weakest shot - forehand down the line - I was positive that I could pull it off ... when it mattered the most. Even more than that; going into a match, I knew it was my weakest shot, and I knew in a tight spot my opponent was going to dare me to hit it, and I knew I could hit it those two or three or four times in a match when I absolutely had to. ... The cliche is to say that ... champions play the big points better. Yes, but that's only the half of it. The champions play their weaknesses better....[21]

In a May 19, 1975, Sports Illustrated article about King, Frank Deford noted that she had become something of a sex symbol and said, "Billie Jean cackles when the matter of her being a sex symbol is raised. 'Hysterical! Hysterical! Me, with these little short legs!' But she is practical enough to realize that a guy who buys a ticket to look at the girls has bought a ticket as sure as the guy who buys a ticket to look at the girls' forehands. ... Billie Jean herself not only thinks that sex is a dandy thing to have lurking around sports, but she also employs sex as sort of the ultimate gauge of equality between women's and men's athletics. This may be described as the Get-It Quotient.... 'There's a lot of ugly fellas among the male athletes, but just because they're athletes they get it all the time, don't they? Now, never mind prize money and publicity and all that. When we reach the point where all the women athletes are getting it, too, regardless of their looks, just like the fellas, then we've really arrived.'"[22]

The Battle of the Sexes[edit | edit source]

Despite King's achievements at the world's biggest tennis tournaments, the U.S. public best remembers King for her win over Bobby Riggs in 1973.

Riggs had been a top men's player in the 1930s and 1940s in both the amateur and professional ranks. He won the Wimbledon men's singles title in 1939, and was considered the World No. 1 male tennis player for 1941, 1946, and 1947. He then became a self-described tennis "hustler" who played in promotional challenge matches. In 1973, he took on the role of male chauvinist. Claiming that the women's game was so inferior to the men's game that even a 55-year-old like himself could beat the current top female players, he challenged and defeated Margaret Smith Court 6–2, 6–1. King, who previously had rejected challenges from Riggs, then accepted a lucrative financial offer to play him.

Dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, the Riggs-King match was played at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973. The match garnered huge publicity. In front of 30,492 spectators and a worldwide television audience estimated at 50 million people in 37 countries, King beat Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. The match is considered a very significant event in developing greater recognition and respect for women's tennis. King said, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's [tennis] tour and affect all women's self-esteem."[23]

In recent years, a persistent urban legend has arisen, particularly on the Internet, that the rules of tennis were modified for the match so that Riggs had only one serve for King's two and that King was allowed to hit into the doubles court area. This is untrue because the match was played under the normal rules of tennis.

Awards, honors, and tributes[edit | edit source]

Margaret Smith Court, who won more Grand Slam titles than anyone, has said that King was “the greatest competitor I’ve ever known.”[24]

Chris Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, has said, "She's the wisest human being that I've ever met and has vision people can only dream about. Billie Jean King is my mentor and has given me advice about my tennis and my boyfriends. On dealing with my parents and even how to raise children. And she doesn't have any."[25]

King was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1967.[26]

In 1972, King became the first tennis player to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. She was also the first female athlete ever to receive that honor.[27][28]

Friends with singer Elton John, the 1975 song "Philadelphia Freedom" is a tribute to King.[29] On a PBS program, John talked about how he brought a demo copy of the record to play for her right after he had recorded it.

In 1975, Seventeen magazine found that King was the most admired woman in the world from a poll of its readers. Golda Meir, who had been Israel's prime minister until the previous year, finished second.[1]

In 1979, several top players were asked who they would pick to help them recover from a hypothetical deficit of 1–5 (15–40) in the third set of a match on Wimbledon's Centre Court. Martina Navratilova, Rosemary Casals, and Francoise Durr all picked King. Navratilova said, "I would have to pick Billie Jean at her best. Consistently, Chris [Evert] is hardest to beat but for one big occasion, one big match, one crucial point, yes, it would have to be Billie Jean." Casals said, "No matter how far down you got her, you never could be sure of beating her."[30]

King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.[31]

Life magazine in 1990 named her one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century."[1]

King was the recipient of the 1999 Arthur Ashe Courage Award.[32]

In 2000, King received an award from the GLAAD, an organization devoted to reducing discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals, for "furthering the visibility and inclusion of the community in her work." The award noted her involvement in production and the free distribution of educational films, as well as serving on the boards of several AIDS charities.[33]

In 2006, the Women's Sports Foundation began to host the Billie Awards, which are named after King.

On August 28, 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.[34] John McEnroe, Venus Williams, Jimmy Connors, and Chris Evert were among the speakers during the rededication ceremony. The center is the largest sports facility in the world to be named after a woman.

On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver inducted King into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.

On October 18, 2007, the Public Justice Foundation presented King with its highest award, the Champion of Justice Award.[citation needed]

On November 20, 2007, King was presented with the 2007 Sunday Times Sports Women of the Year Lifetime Achievement award for her contribution to sport both on and off the court.[9]

Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was another of King's admirers and close friends. Schulz referenced King several times in Peanuts over the years. In one strip, Peppermint Patty tells Marcie, "Has anyone ever told you that when you're mad, you look just like Billie Jean King?"

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Billie Jean won for all women
  2. Official Wimbledon profile of Billie Jean King. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  3. Randy Moffitt Statistics. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  4. Press Release - King's Schools. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  5. Billy (sic) Jean King Commemorates Title IX's 35th Anniversary
  6. "Billie Jean King of Her Family," Long Beach Press-Telegram, November 23, 1965, page C-4
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Legacy of Billie Jean King, an Athlete Who Demanded Equal Play
  8. Deford, Frank; King, Billie Jean (1982). Billie Jean. New York, N.Y: Viking, 19. ISBN 0-670-47843-1. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 The Big Interview: Billie Jean King (December 9, 2007)
  10. No royalty like King
  11. Billie Jean King (interview)
  12. Billie Jean King Elected To Philip Morris Board
  13. Billie Jean King, Mother of Modern Sports
  14. Evert, Navratilova weigh in on tennis legend Billie Jean King
  15. International Tennis Hall of Fame biography of Billie Jean Moffitt King. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  16. Chris Evert: Miss Cool on the Court
  17. "Billie Jean King a perfectionist," New Mexican, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 1, 1980, page C-7
  18. "The Challenge of Her Life - Billie Jean at 40," Parade Magazine, Syracuse Herald Journal, January 8, 1984, page 7
  19. 19.0 19.1 Mrs. Billie Jean King!
  20. all things William. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  21. Deford, Frank; King, Billie Jean (1982). Billie Jean. New York, N.Y: Viking, 96–7. ISBN 0-670-47843-1. 
  22. Mrs. Billie Jean King!
  23. Billie Jean won for all women. Retrieved on 2007-02-15.
  24. Who Is the Greatest Female Player Ever?
  25. No royalty like King
  26. "Billie Jean King Named 'Woman Athlete of the Year'," Daily Capital News, Jefferson City, Missouri, January 13, 1968, page 6
  27. Sports Illustrated honors Wade
  28. The Dynamic Path - Billie Jean King
  29. Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John
  30. "Billie Jean King toughest in tight spot: Durr says," The Daily Leader, Pontiac, Illinois, March 22, 1979, page 13
  31. Billie Jean Moffitt King
  32. Weah selected for Arthur Ashe Courage Award
  33. Billie Jean King, Dennis & Judy Shepard, Doonesbury, Harper's and Many Others Honored at the 11th Annual GLAAD Media Awards Presented by Absolut Vodka
  34. History of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center

General references[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Fein, Paul (2005). You Can Quote Me On That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights And Zingers. Washington: Potomac Books. ISBN 1-57488-925-7. 
  • Roberts, Selena (2005). A Necessary Spectacle : Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game. New York: Crown. ISBN 1-4000-5146-0. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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