In 2016, I inducted Serena and Venus Williams into the KineSophy Hall of Fame for their individual excellence in women’s tennis, their social consciousness and their unwillingness to conform to the unfair expectations of their detractors. And the Williams sisters certainly deserve their place among the groundbreaking figures in sports and social justice. However, their induction threatened to overshadow the woman who laid the groundwork for many of their later accomplishments: Billie Jean King.
Childhood and Early Career
Billie Jean Moffitt was born almost four decades before Serena and Venus, in 1943 in Long Beach, California. The naturally athletic Moffitt was a star softball shortstop until her parents suggested she pursue a more “ladylike” sport. Her father proposed tennis because it involved running and hitting a ball, and Moffitt quickly became a rising star in her new sport.
She won her first Wimbledon title in women’s doubles in 1961 at the age of seventeen. Five years later, she captured her first Wimbledon singles title. 1966 also saw King (who married attorney Larry King in 1965) ranked the world’s number one women’s tennis player. She would hold the top spot for three straight years and five total years during her playing career. In 1967, she swept the U.S. and British titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, becoming the first woman to do so since 1938. Four years later, she became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a year.
By the time she retired, King had amassed a then-record total of twenty Wimbledon championships in singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. She won six singles Wimbledon championships, four singles U.S. Open championships and a total of thirty-nine major titles in singles and doubles. She also achieved Career Grand Slams (winning all four major tournaments) in singles and mixed doubles.
The Battle of the Sexes
But King’s most famous tennis match didn’t earn her a major trophy. In 1973, she faced 1939 men’s Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in the much-publicized Battle of the Sexes. Riggs, who was fifty-five at the time, had defeated women’s star Margaret Court in a similar exhibition match earlier that year. Perhaps to drum up publicity, Riggs embraced the role of male chauvinist leading up to the match.
“She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability [to win],” Riggs said of King. He added, “women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.”
But on matchday, King pasted Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The Battle of the Sexes was the most-watched tennis match of all time, with 30,472 in attendance at the Houston Astrodome and a worldwide television audience estimated at over 90 million. King’s $100,000 prize was the largest tennis purse awarded up to that time.
King later said, “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
Athlete and Activist
Her victory over Riggs proved to be one of King’s many pushes for greater gender equality in sports and society. After winning the 1972 U.S. Open and receiving $15,000 less in prize money than men’s champion Ilie Nastase, King declared that if the prize money wasn’t equal by the following year, she wouldn’t play. As a result, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women in 1973.
Throughout her career, King continued to advocate for the rights of female players. She helped found the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973, obtained financial backing from commercial sponsors and became the WTA’s first president.
Her influence on American culture was immediate. The Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Year in 1967. Five years later, she became the first tennis player named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and the first female to ever receive the honor, with the magazine dubbing her “probably the most influential athlete of her time.” A 1975 poll in Seventeen magazine found that King was the most admired woman in the world. In addition, she was named TIME magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1976, and one of Harper’s Bazaar’s ten most powerful women in America in 1977.
In 1974, King and her husband Larry helped found World TeamTennis (WTT). She also started WomenSports magazine and the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting and enhancing athletic opportunities for females. WTT folded after 1978 due to financial losses, but King revived the league in 1981.
In the same year, King made headlines by admitting to having an affair with her female former secretary, making her the most prominent female athlete to come out at that time. As a result, she lost all her endorsement contracts. Undeterred, King divorced her husband and became a public gay rights activist in addition to her advocacy for gender equality. King retired from professional tennis in 1984 and became the commissioner of WTT, making her the first female commissioner in professional sports.
The Legacy of Billie Jean King
King’s athletic accomplishments and influence beyond sports are perhaps unparalleled. “She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise,” Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. Tennis star Martina Navratilova said of King, “She was a crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock.”
Thinking of King’s career through the lens of KineSophy, this inclusion is perhaps King’s most significant legacy. She made thousands, if not millions, of women believe that it was acceptable for them to be physically active. In doing so, King played an important role in reshaping the understanding of women’s health and the importance of physical movement for all humans. “In the 70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes,” King said of this change. “We had to make it okay for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports.”
An All-Around Hall of Famer
For her athletic excellence, King was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. But her social influence continued well beyond her athletic career. In 1990, LIFE magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” She was the only female athlete on the list, and one of only four athletes (along with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali).
In 1999, she received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to sports-related individuals whose contributions transcend sports. The United States Tennis Association renamed the National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006. And in 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
For her outstanding tennis career, her promotion of physical activity for people of all genders, her courage and integrity in the face of adversity and her tireless advocacy on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community, KineSophy inducts Billie Jean King into its Hall of Fame.
- Augustyn, Adam. “Battle of the Sexes.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed March 22, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-the-Sexes-tennis.
- “Billie Jean King.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Billie-Jean-King.
- “Billie Jean King.” International Tennis Hall of Fame. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/inductees/billie-jean-king.
- Schwartz, Larry. “Billie Jean won for all women.” ESPN.com. Accessed March 21, 2022. http://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00016060.html.