As the WNBA prepares to celebrate its 15th season, let us take a look back at one of the women who paved the way for women's professional and amateur sports today, Billie Jean King.
Having won 39 Grand Slam titles and a record 10 Wimbledon titles, King is undoubtedly one of the best tennis players of all time. She is perhaps best known for her 1973 highly publicized match against male tennis champion Bobby Riggs. However, besides kicking Riggs' butt in a very public way, King did much to further gender equality on the amateur and professional courts.
Born Billie Jean Moffat on November 22, 1943, King began playing tennis at the age of seven and ten years later competed in Wimbledon for the first time. Known for her confident, aggressive playing style, King was the number one ranked female player in 1968 and four more times afterward.
However, despite King's success on the court, female athletes at that time were still being awarded less prize money (and respect) than male athletes for equal titles. The ratio between men's and women's prizes ranged anywhere from 2.5:1 to even 12:1 during the 1970s. Fed up with the continued second-class status of female athletes, King and eight other female tennis players boycotted the 1970 Pacific Southwest Championships and participated in their own tournament, the 1970 Virginia Slims Tour (slogan: You've come a long way, baby) whose prize money awards totaled over $300,000. The nine players were threatened with sanctions from the United States Lawn Tennis Association for competing in the tournament, but in one of tennis' most punk rock moments they competed anyway and were suspended by the USLTA.
In 1973, King founded the Women's Tennis Association, a union organization that worked for equal tournament pay for all athletes. Thanks to their efforts, the US Open agreed to award equal prize money to men and women that same year, becoming the first major tournament to do so. As if 1973 was not already a huge year for King, that year she also faced off in what is arguably the most famous tennis match ever, the Battle of the Sexes against former world champion Bobby Riggs. Undoubtedly, many viewers tuned in expecting Riggs to beat King. (He had previously defeated famed tennis champion Margaret Court that same year on Mother's Day.) However, King made Riggs eat his bouncy, yellow words by beating him 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. Held a year after the implementation of Title IX, the BotS match was significant not only for proving the ability of female athletes, its popularity also helped to prove to advertisers and broadcasters that a market for women's sports indeed existed and could be lucrative. It still reigns the most-watched televised tennis match before or since. Consequently, today women's tennis matches receive just as many viewers as men's and female tennis players such as Serena Williams are earning millions in tournament prizes and endorsement deals.
King's sexuality has also been discussed publicly. In 1965 she married Lawrence King (not to be confused with the more famous Larry), but in 1987 she was devastated by a palimony lawsuit from her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, who claimed they had been involved in an intimate relationship since 1972. Though King eventually won the suit, she was forced to publicly come out as bisexual and, as a result, lost all of her endorsements and $2 million in contracts. She and her husband divorced two years later. King was criticized by feminists and gay rights activists for continuing to condemn and hide her sexuality until 1998 when she fully came out. She credits her previous reluctance to fully embrace her sexuality to being forced out of the closet, saying:
Any therapist will tell you that when you're ready, you will come out. To be outed means you weren't ready... I think it's impossible to judge whether another person should come out. You just hope they will on their own times and their own terms.
Though Billie Jean King officially retired from professional tennis in 1983, she continued to fight for gender equality and gay rights both within and outside of tennis. She has used her celebrity to bring attention and much-needed funds to various causes such as AIDS research, LGBTQ rights, and coed athletics. Her awards, recognitions, and accomplishments are far too numerous to list here, but she continues her tireless activism to this day. She currently sits on the board of the Women's Sports Foundation and works with the government's Let's Move and Choose My Plate programs. Though women's athletics are still nowhere as celebrated or funded as men's, we all owe Billie Jean King our gratitude, even tennis team rejects like myself.