Tennis is Billie Jean King's passion, but activism is her true game. Her 39 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles may have been, by her own standards, the least of her many accomplishments. She isn't happy unless she is championing a cause, whether it's professionalism on the court or feminism in the world at large.
Everything she has done seemed urgent. Billie Jean, the fireman's daughter, came at you with sirens blaring. On the tennis court she was a streak of blue-suede sneakers and sequined lapels, a flash of dressed-up muscle and discontent. Her aggressive serve-and-volley style was politically significant: When in doubt, she charged, and with that philosophy she shifted the spectrum of female possibilities from the decorative to the active and helped to Frankenstein a generation of women athletes.
Her first cause was to take tennis out of the country clubs and straight to the public, and she became a significant force in changing the culture of the sport from old-time elitism to modern professionalism. A sense of mission burgeoned in her as an amateur on the public courts of Long Beach, Calif., where she fought for equal consideration with the resort-bred players. She struggled through Los Angeles State College as a playground instructor while making Grand Slam finals. When she won her first Wimbledon singles title, in 1966, she received a ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£50 gift voucher good for buying tennis wear. Her only other compensation was a half-dozen Mars bars, which some of her fellow players left in her room by way of congratulations.
Radicalized by those experiences, King, in 1968, joined with Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and a handful of other greats to demand prize money at all tournaments. Soon after, King helped to found the women's professional tour. She was the star, mother figure and most tireless promoter of the circuit, handing out leaflets on street corners before playing her matches. Along the way she became the first woman athlete to win $100,000 in a single year, 1971. (Today the Women's Tennis Association tour offers $35 million in prize money.) Later she founded World Team Tennis, which used rock music and carnival-like promotions to lure fans to matches.
September 18, 1994
Then came the Pigs versus Libs debate. King's Battle of the Sexes victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973 was, despite its comical trappings, a triumph of sorts for the women's movement. The political and personal stakes were so high that night in Houston that the normally impervious King threw up in the locker room beforehand. More than 30,000 people flocked to the Astrodome, where they saw King, 29, borne in on a throne. Then she defeated the 55-year-old Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in what was a precursor of today's made-for-television sports spectacles. The tennis was awful, but King's victory meant something. With it, insidious notions about the desire and ability of women to compete in the big time fell away. "Before that," King says with a touch of hyperbole, "women were chokers and spastics who couldn't take pressure. Except, of course, in childbirth."
So every time a little girl beats her brother in a game of pop-a-shot or a sorority girl plays flag football, you might credit King. There is little in the realm of sports for women that she did not help nurture. Among other things, she was a vocal advocate of establishing college athletic scholarships for women through Title IX legislation; she helped create the Women's Sports Foundation, a fund-raising organization for amateur athletes; and she helped found Women Sports magazine (now Women's Sport & Fitness), which shared her conviction that you did not need a male genetic imprint to read about athletics.
King translated her achievements on the field of play into a powerful course of action off the field. And she may not be done yet: This is, after all, the woman who made the Wimbledon semifinals at 39. Now 50, she helps promote team tennis and docs Wimbledon commentary for HBO, and she is a leading proponent of change in the women's tour. Outside of tennis, one of her chief interests is the Discovery Zone, a network of playlands for children in which King was an early and impassioned investor. At Discovery Zones girls and boys climb ropes, scoot through tunnels and dive into piles of brightly colored balls, playing together in an atmosphere that fosters coeducational physical development. Says King, "It's equal."