Today we begin a two-part look back at Billie Jean King's one and only Roland Garros title—won 50 years ago, in 1972, and which completed a career Grand Slam for the American. (The above photo shows King holding the trophy alongside runner-up Evonne Goolagaong.) Earned on the terre battue in Paris, it was BJK's training on California hard courts that helped pave her eventual path to the championship. Here's how:


Fifty years ago this month, Billie Jean King arrived in Paris. She was 28 years old and had won six major singles titles—three at Wimbledon, two US, one Australian. While King had played Wimbledon 11 times and a dozen at her homeland Slam, she’d only made four trips to Roland Garros, her best effort a semifinal run in 1968.

“I hadn’t really given the time and attention to the French,” King told me. “We were trying to make the women’s tour successful.” In 1971, the first full year of the Virginia Slims Circuit, King skipped Roland Garros. But by the spring of 1972, King pointed herself towards Paris. “I told Larry [her husband] ‘I’m ticked off, I’m sick of this, I’m going to train.’”

Having learned tennis on California hard courts, King’s attacking game was a natural fit for the other three majors, then all played on slick grass. But clay? “California kids were the laughing stock on clay,” says King. “We’d slide two or three feet. It was hilarious… I was pathetic at first. But back when I was a teenager, I learned a lot about patience from Margaret Osborne duPont, a great player and our Wightman Cup coach. She made me hit every day against Gwyneth Thomas on the clay at the Saddle and Cycle Club in Chicago.”

California kids were the laughing stock on clay. We’d slide two or three feet. It was hilarious… Billie Jean King


Speed and a terrific net game had taken King to the top of the world. But even those attributes paled in comparison to the asset King owned from the minute she first hit a tennis ball: curiosity. Tennis has likely never seen a champion as studious. And as fate had it, well before she married Larry King, Billie Jean Moffitt’s tennis education occurred in as rich a time and place as anyone wielding a racquet could ever ask for, as ideal a learning spot for an ambitious tennis player as Florence in the Renaissance would have been for an aspiring painter.

Southern California’s Mediterranean climate made it possible to play outdoors year-round, giving it a competitive jump on all other parts of the country. Rapidly, Southern California became populated with hundreds of tennis courts and zealous players. For most of the 20th century, no other place had more local greats, including future Hall of Famers May Sutton, Dodo Cheney, Gene Mako, Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs, Ted Schroeder, Joe Hunt, Jack Kramer, Pauline Betz, Bob Falkenburg, Pancho Gonzales, Budge Patty, Maureen Connolly, Louise Brough, Darlene Hard and Dennis Ralston.

“It was such a rich lineage of accomplished players,” says King. “If you see it, you can be it.”


In the summer of 1954, 10-year-old Billie Jean took her first tennis lesson at Houghton Park, located in her native Long Beach. It’s still there. At the north end of the park sit two California hard courts, looking every bit as slick as they were when Billie Jean hung on every word uttered by a local instructor, Clyde Walker. As King wrote in her 2021 autobiography, All In, “I could tell he was thinking: Whoa, we’ve got a live one.” Soon enough, she followed Walker to the parks he taught at all over Long Beach: Silverado on Monday, Houghton on Tuesday, Somerset on Wednesday, Ramona on Thursday, Recreation on Friday.

Back home, at the Moffitt family’s ranch house on West 36th Street, Billie Jean hit ball after ball against a cinderblock wall her father had built. At night, her time was split between schoolwork, Bible study and tennis history. Billie Jean devoured tales of tennis greats—not just those in Southern California she would see and even eventually play with, but of faraway places like Wimbledon and Roland Garros. “Suzanne Lenglen, the great French player, was my first superstar,” says King. “She was so glamorous and athletic.”

Within a year of that day at Houghton Park, Billie Jean was driven an hour north by her mother Betty to play a tournament at what was then one of the most important tennis venues in the world, the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Each of the great players mentioned above had cut their teeth there, many as junior members, all as competitors, most notably at such events as the Southern California Sectionals and the Pacific Southwest Championships, the latter at the time being the second-most important tournament in the country. Others came from all over the world. There was top-ranked American Tony Trabert, King to this day remembering getting his autograph. There were such Australian greats as Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. There was the breakthrough emergence of Althea Gibson, the elegance of Maria Bueno.

“I got to see these people year after year at the Pacific Southwest,” says King. “They’d talk with you and sometimes I got to hit with them.”

“I hadn’t really given the time and attention to the French,” King said. That changed during her 1972 run to the title.

“I hadn’t really given the time and attention to the French,” King said. That changed during her 1972 run to the title.


Long before prize money and computer rankings entered the picture, one’s fate as a tennis player rested in the hands of amateur officials. Southern California’s czar was Perry Jones. From a small office just off the side of the Los Angeles Tennis Club’s stadium court, Jones had his hands on everything from running tournaments to determining who was good enough to compete beyond the section at various tournaments all over the country and even the world. So powerful was Jones that in 1958, the year Billie Jean turned 15, he was named Davis Cup captain.

Billie Jean’s first encounter with Jones was marked by the classic wound-and-the-bow moment that has often propelled greatness. As all the young women gathered to have a group photo taken, Jones told Billie Jean she could not be in the picture because she was not wearing a skirt or dress, but instead was clad in a homemade pair of shorts Betty had made specifically for this event. Jones’ exclusionary act angered and motivated Billie Jean.

As her tennis education continued, Billie Jean in her mid-teens caught the attention of Alice Marble, a five-time Grand Slam singles champion who at the time was teaching tennis on a private court in Encino, a Los Angeles neighborhood located in the San Fernando Valley. “Alice told my dad about this girl in Long Beach who was kind of a tomboy, who played baseball with the boys,” says Eileen Goldsen, daughter of the court’s owner, Michael “Mickey” Goldsen.

Long before prize money and computer rankings entered the picture, one’s fate as a tennis player rested in the hands of amateur officials. Southern California’s czar was Perry Jones.


For more than a year, each Saturday, Billie Jean’s parents would drive 40 miles from Long Beach to Encino—in those days strictly on surface streets—where Billie would spend the weekend with Alice before being picked up Sunday night. Says Goldsen, “They’d practice in the morning and then, in the afternoon, play doubles with my dad and his friends.” Says King, “Alice taught me so much. She taught me that you always had to say thank you to the host. She also taught me that you win or lose with how you manage balls hit around the service line. That still holds true today.”

Graduating high school in 1961, King made her first trip to Wimbledon, where she lost a close three-setter to fifth-seeded Yola Ramirez and surprisingly won the doubles with Karen Hantze. Soon after returning home, Billie Jean commenced studies at California State University at Los Angeles. One of the big sprawling public campuses that for many years made California’s school system the best in the world, Cal State LA also had a tremendous women’s team. Besides Billie Jean, who’d finished 1961 ranked third in the US, one spot behind her on the team was US number nine, Carole Caldwell.


Yet there was so little support for women’s tennis then that Billie Jean instead often practiced and played on the men’s team. In the fall of 1962, on the fourth floor of the campus library, she met Larry. Primarily a benchwarmer on the men’s team, Larry called Billie Jean’s attention to the inequities between the genders.

“It’s hard to fathom how women’s tennis was treated in the early ‘60s,” Larry told me. To supplement her income, motoring around Southern California in a burgundy 1950 Ford she’d bought for $310, Billie Jean passed out hot dogs and drinks to reporters at Cal State LA football games and taught tennis on Saturday mornings in Pasadena.

Through those years, she sharpened her skills and competed as time, school and Perry Jones permitted. In the spring came a quick trip to London for Wimbledon, where Billie Jean in 1963 reached the women’s singles final. In the summer came the Eastern grass circuit, leading up to the US Nationals at Forest Hills. But the epicenter remained Southern California, at events in spots like Ojai, Santa Monica, San Diego—and, most of all, the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Though granted an honorary membership there in her teens, as a woman, Billie Jean remained a second-class citizen. Largely ignored by such great minds as Kramer and Gonzales, Billie Jean squinted through the slats of bleachers to overhear the wisdom they were passing on to male hopefuls Dennis Ralston and Stan Smith.

It’s hard to fathom how women’s tennis was treated in the early ‘60s. Larry King


In the fall of 1964, a decade after that first day at Houghton Park, Billie Jean was on the way to finishing the year ranked No. 7 in the world. But she wanted much more, craved the chance to earn the titles won by such personal heroines as Lenglen and Gibson. There was also the sober truth that no one ranked seven could change anyone’s mind about people like Perry Jones.

When an offer came from an Australian businessman, Bob Mitchell, to spend the fall training in Australia, she jumped at the opportunity. Though Billie Jean enjoyed taking in ideas and chatting with her fellow undergraduates, as Larry says, “She was basically a tennis player going to college.”

Those first ten years of tennis in Southern California: that was where she’d earned a bachelor’s degree. Australia would be grad school, where Billie Jean refined her entire game under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Mervyn Rose and had the chance to work out with the likes of Laver, Roy Emerson and her eventual mixed doubles partner, Owen Davidson.

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow.