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How Billie Jean King changed the game
This special feature is presented by Microsoft.
Published Nov 02, 2023
Billie Jean King made her professional tennis debut in Cannes, in the South of France, in the spring of 1968. That sounds like a suitably glamorous birthplace for such a storied pro career, doesn’t it? It did to the 24-year-old Californian—at first.
“The Riviera! What an omen, what a place to start!” she exulted.
King had spent the previous decade on the amateur circuit, where prize money, as it had been since tennis’ invention 90 years earlier, was verboten. Now, finally, she was fulfilling her dream of being rewarded for her work, and making a living doing what she loved.
The problem was, the “tour” wasn’t really a thing yet. King signed with the first dual-gender pro circuit, the National Tennis League. While the NTL was trailblazing, it wasn’t exactly a going concern. BJK was the defending champion at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in ’68, but she was still staying in friends’ houses on the road. That first night in Cannes wasn’t the premiere of her dreams.
“You know where on the Riviera we played? In a high school gym,” she said. “It was pouring rain outside, and so stuffy my glasses got all steamed up and I could barely see.”
Vic Braden, then working for the NTL, walked past and screamed, “Welcome to the pros!”
“Take me back to the country clubs!” Kings yelled back sarcastically. “But I loved it. At last I was a pro. Pay for play.”
Tennis would soon leave the country clubs for good, and follow King into the brave new Open Era, where everyone was free to ply his or her trade. No active player, man or woman, did as much to bring that momentous, democratizing change about. Just five years after her high-school-gym debut, King was playing before a worldwide audience in the Astrodome, where she changed history again by beating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.
Today, King is remembered best for what she did that night in Houston. At 79—she turns 80 this month—she’s a certified feminist icon, someone who turned the theories of the women’s movement into reality. In 1970, she coaxed the players now known as the Original 9 to make the risky leap onto the path-breaking Virginia Slims circuit. In 1973, she founded the WTA, still the most successful women’s pro tour in any sport. Along the way, she became the first woman athlete to earn $100,000 in a season. It was a symbolic achievement, but a shocking one at the time.
“Did I think I’d live long enough to be out-earned by a woman in my line of work?” Rod Laver asked himself later. “It would have been too preposterous to even think about.”
As the journalist Grace Lichtenstein wrote, “King and her colleagues [were] a new breed of career woman, who were carving out a place for themselves in what, throughout history, had been strictly a man’s world—that of the sports superstar.”
BJK’s off-court successes and win over Riggs came to overshadow what she did, and what she meant, as an athlete. She was not quite 5’5”, but she served and volleyed and covered the net as well as anyone has. Her dynamic energy—the wide eyes, the body flying forward at full extension—made her one of the great action-photo subjects; her love of ballet showed up in her playing style. Just as revolutionary was her way of emoting. Stoicism and a stiff upper lip had always been the norm in tennis, but King wasn’t afraid to show (and often tell) everyone how she felt. As Lichtenstein wrote, “King made tomboyishness acceptable, even sexy.”
As fiercely as King competed, she was also a mentor and friend to her fellow players; she put the progress of the sport above everything else. She partnered her protégé Rosie Casals to multiple Grand Slam doubles titles. She recognized the value of Chris Evert’s star quality, and encouraged the teenager even as she fought her on court. She played doubles with, and was an early supporter of, Renée Richards, a transsexual who struggled for acceptance on tour. King was dubbed Madame Superstar, but she didn’t fit the stereotype of an ice queen who couldn’t get along with her fellow players.
Yet King was never entirely comfortable with her radical reputation, or her role as a “Feminist Athlete Doll,” as she once called herself. The daughter of a fireman from blue-collar Long Beach, Calif., she has a conservative side to go with the progressive one, and an abiding belief in the power of capitalism.
The Battle of the Sexes became a fight for women’s equality, but it began because Riggs thought the players on the senior men’s tour should make more money than the women on the WTA Tour. King couldn’t let that stand. For her, money, in women’s hands, is the most tangible and important sign of progress. Today, when the subject of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s fight for equal pay comes up, she expresses more concern about the health of their professional leagues.
“Every time, give me the pros,” BJK said. “Put them in charge and oblige the event to operate on a paying basis, and I’ll accept what happens in the marketplace.”
Within the world of tennis, that mindset may be King’s most significant contribution, and one that has had an equal influence on the men’s and women’s games.
Until 1968, tennis was a colony of the British Empire, and one of the last bastions of aristocracy, of the strange idea that a gentleman who doesn’t have to work for a living is superior to one who does. After 1968 and the start of the Open era, tennis was largely annexed by the United States. It was pushed, kicking and screaming, out of the country club and into the marketplace. The pro game became a money-based meritocracy, and the recreational game was democratized and played on newly-built public courts.
More than any figure, Billie Jean King—the young champion who was happy to have her glasses steamed up in a high school gym so she could be a pro—has been the symbol of that change, and the driving force behind it, for both sexes.
“Ultimately,” King said, “I wanted tennis changed because I loved tennis so much, and wanted all of it to be as good for everyone as the parts that were already so good for me.”