King’s Court: Billie Jean’s Battle of the Sexes Continues
Tennis legend Billie Jean King continues to spread equality awareness as the 44th anniversary of her famed match with Bobby Riggs has arrived.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: Sept. 20, 2017 • 7:47 PM ET
Billie Jean King has been one of the most inspirational voices in sports.
Women’s liberation was little more than a seed when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 44 years ago in the much-publicized “Battle of The Sexes.”
King’s record on international tennis courts was a proven fact, earning 39 Grand Slam titles in singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles by the time she’d agreed to play Riggs at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973.
At the same time, but not as well-known, she had become a strong voice for equal rights. She challenged amateurism in tennis and worked toward creating what’s now called the Women’s Tennis Association, which facilitates thousands of women’s professional careers on the international tour. And, she stood firm in her support of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
King’s vision of equality for all was always her hope, as if she was born to advocate for the issue that seems to remain as elusive as world peace. When she spoke about equality, she included everyone: women, men and the LBGTQ population.
“When I was 12, I had an epiphany,” King told the AARP Bulletin this month. “I was at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. It was the 1950s.
“I started thinking about my sport. Everyone was white. I said to myself, where is everybody else? It was heavy on my mind at the time. I promised myself that I would fight for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women.”
Riggs, in hot pursuit of re-energizing his tennis career at 55 years old, thought he could hustle King in a familiar atmosphere: a gaudy, raucous extravaganza, where big bets made him feel more secure about the risk at hand. He was a gambling man and a fine professional tennis player. In 1939, he won the men’s singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon, a feat only duplicated, ironically enough, by King in 1967. But he miscalculated the power of King.
King’s mind was on the match, but simultaneously centered on her humanitarian issues. If she lost to Riggs, her celebrity and advocacy would take a big hit in the credibility arena.
"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," King said via ESPN. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."
But she beat him, giving herself the biggest platform to launch all sorts of equal-rights initiatives, to battle for higher pay in women’s sports, especially tennis, and to consistently and continually inspire those that need it most.
“The reason I beat him is because I respected him so much,” King said. “Everybody in the world thought a guy — any guy — could beat any girl. That got me irritated.
“When I played Bobby, this is what I wanted out of it: I wanted everyone to come together. I wanted to start changing the hearts and minds of people.
King began earning honors and awards in 1967 as the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year. Frank Deford all but labeled her a sex symbol in a 1975 edition of Sports Illustrated. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2000, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation honored her for “furthering the visibility and inclusion of the community in her work.”
In 2006, the United States Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center was re-named The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Throughout the year, King’s name is associated with the U.S. Open, held at this sprawling facility. King attends and works the crowds, which she loves. She meets with delegates of the game, pushing her brand of liberation.
And, finally, President Obama awarded King The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. It’s the highest civilian award given by the United States.
“I get inspired every day by people,” King said. “I want kids to dream. But a lot of kids are going hungry — how can they dream? We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country.”
On September 29, the movie “Battle of the Sexes” opens nationwide. It’s the true-life story of gambler and tennis player Bobby Riggs, portrayed by Steve Carell, and feminist and tennis player Billie Jean King, portrayed by Emma Stone.
“I have not had one day in my life where someone doesn’t come up to me and say something about it,” King said. “Women will say to me, ‘I watched that match. That gave me self-confidence for the first time.’
“Guys will come up and say, ‘I didn’t understand until I had a daughter.’ Kids say, ‘My grandparents told me all about you. You played this big match against this guy — and you won!’”
For King, the movie just seems like another way to get the word out about equality and her vision realized.