US Open photo exhibit chronicles eventful life of Billie Jean King

US Open photo exhibit chronicles eventful life of Billie Jean King

Titled “Billie Jean King: Champion Activist Legend,” the collection encapsulates the legendary player and progressive icon in full.

NEW YORK—The grounds at the US Open are quiet again. It doesn’t take long for the draws to narrow from 256 to four, and for the number of fans streaming through the gates at Flushing Meadows to shrink accordingly.

For anyone who has the time and wherewithal to visit the Open in these latter days, it’s easier now to stop and appreciate some of the tennis history that the USTA had embedded on the site. The sculpture of a youthful Althea Gibson by Eric Goulder, unveiled this year and placed near the center of the grounds where no one can miss it, is a striking and soberly powerful monument to the first African-American to play this tournament. Elsewhere, a line of kiosks celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rod Laver’s 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam with vintage photos from each of the four majors that year.

Finally, and least conspicuously, there is “Billie Jean King: Champion Activist Legend,” an exhibit of photographs and videos chronicling the eventful life of the woman whose name has been synonymous with this facility since 2006. The show, co-curated by Helen R. Russell of Billie Jean King Enterprises and Marilyn Satin Kushner of the New-York Historical Society, fills the walls of a large room near the East Gate.

Amateurs at the time, Ann Hayden Jones, Francoise Durr, Roy Emerson, Rosie Casals and King were signed to professional contracts by the National Tennis League in April of 1968. (Original: Bettman Archives; photo of wall exhibit by Anita Aguilar/Tennis.com) 

Part of the story the exhibit tells will be familiar to anyone moderately versed in tennis history, or even 20th-century American history. We see King and the Original 9 holding up dollar bills in Houston; King, with a crooked smile, being crowned the first $100,000 winner in women’s tennis; King carried into the Astrodome for the Battle of the Sexes. Above the photos are two of BJK’s most quoted quotes: “Pressure is a privilege” and “Champions adjust.” The second one is so common around the game that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that it’s attributed to her.

But part of the exhibit will be unfamiliar to all but the most devoted Billie-ologists. Did you know she was good friends with Peanuts creator Charles Schultz? Did you know that she was traded from the Philadelphia Freedoms to the New York Sets during the 1975 World Team Tennis season? Traded? That year’s Wimbledon winner? The founder of the league? Billie Jean King?

More seriously, I had never seen the close-up of a dauntlessly young-looking King testifying before the Senate about gender equality in education in 1973. The black-and-white shot appears just beneath a group of photos documenting the Battle of the Sexes, and near a photo of BJK at the 1973 US Open, where she personally helped secure the sponsorship from Bristol-Myers that made the Open the first of the Slams to offer equal prize money. King, you realize, knew how to do the symbolic stuff like beat Bobby Riggs, as well as the substantive political and financial stuff that made change a reality.

King testified before the Senate Education Committee in November of 1973 during hearings on programs to eliminate discrimination in education. (Original: Bettman Archives; photo of wall exhibit by Anita Aguilar/Tennis.com) 

Several other less-celebrated sub-themes of Kings’s career weave their way through these photos. One is her playing style, and maybe more important, her emoting style. It’s easy to forget that King was not quite 5’5,” yet she served and volleyed and covered the net as well as anyone has. Her dynamic energy—the wide eyes, the body flying forward—made her one of the great action shot subjects. She was also one of the best for facial expressions; at a time when stoicism and a stiff upper lip were still the norm among tennis players, King wasn’t afraid to show (and often tell) everyone how she felt. In one shot here, the British photographer Michael Cole captures her in operatic agony.

A second sub-theme is money. King grins when she signs her first pro contract, in 1968, and calls it the happiest day of her life. She proudly holds up her dollar bill in Houston, and dons her $100,000 crown the following year. The Battle of the Sexes was played in part because Riggs thought the players on the senior men’s tour should make more than the women on the WTA tour. BJK was a feminist and a progressive, but she wasn’t and still isn’t anti-capitalist. She has said that it’s one thing to get men to acknowledge women as equals, but a very different thing to get them to actually pay women equally. For her, money, in women’s hands—and in her hands—was a tangible sign of progress.

Third, King’s role as mentor and friend is also documented here. We see her playing alongside her early doubles protégé Rosie Casals, who leaps to hit a forehand; Casals would become an early WTA stalwart, and win multiple Grand Slam doubles titles with BJK. Next we see King with a 16-year-old Chris Evert at Forest Hills in 1971. King writes that she felt immense pressure to beat Evert in their semifinal, because Chris was still an amateur, which meant that the reputation, and possibly the future, of the women’s pro tour was on the line. But King also understood how important someone with Evert’s star quality could be to the WTA, and she encouraged her even as she competed against her. Later in the exhibit, King is shown playing doubles with Renée Richards; King was an early supporter of Richards, a transsexual who struggled for acceptance from some WTA players.

King and long-time partner, Ilana Kloss, a former No. 1 in doubles and current President of Billie Jean King Enterprises. (Original: Kevin Tachman; photo of wall exhibit by Anita Aguilar/Tennis.com) ​

Becoming who you are: As you walk though this exhibit, that’s what you see happening to King. In an early photo, we see her cutting her wedding cake with her conservatively-coiffed husband, Larry King. A family, and the 1950s California dream, seem to await. But King had other ideas, and bigger ambitions. She would work, she would organize, and when she faced Riggs and tennis’s old-guard officials, she would win. In the exhibit’s final photo, she poses alongside her longtime partner Ilana Kloss. King’s evolution mirrors that of her generation, because she helped lead it.

In retrospect, you can see it coming in my favorite shot in the exhibit. It shows King, with her partner Karen Hantze, walking off Centre Court after beating Margaret Court and Jan Lehane in the 1961 Wimbledon doubles final. The photo is taken seconds after the handshake, and King—then Billie Jean Moffit—looks ecstatic as she heads for the sideline. She was 17, and this was the first of her 39 Grand Slam titles. There was so much more ahead, and she looked ready for it.


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