Billie Jean King
Against All Odds
Billie Jean Moffitt was only a teenager when she took the international spotlight by winning, with Karen Hantze, the women's doubles tournament at Wimbledon in 1961. Her journey to the first of an amazing run of victories there began on the public tennis courts at Long Beach, California.
The daughter of Betty Jerman Moffitt, who sold Avon and Tupperware products, and fireman Willis "Bill" Moffitt, King grew up in a working-class family with brother Randy, five years her junior. She was named after her father, though the family often called her the more affectionate "Sister" or "Sissy." She was "a little angel," her mother recalled in a 1975 interview with journalist Joe Hyams. Like their father, the young Moffitts were baseball fans, and Billie Jean, who played softball as a youngster, became an excellent hitter. (Randy earned 96 saves in 12 years as a major league relief pitcher, mostly for the San Francisco Giants.) Realizing at age 11 that "there was no place for an American girl to go in the national pastime," she wrote in Billie Jean, the young athlete sought an alternate sport.
Afraid to swim and bored by golf, she was left with tennis—"what else could a little girl do if she wasn't afraid to sweat?" she wrote in her 1982 autobiography. Her parents signed her up for instruction with the Long Beach city recreation program, where she borrowed a racquet and received free lessons. At the time, however, tennis was mostly an activity for the elite, and the adolescent felt out of place among her teammates. For one thing, King wore eyeglasses to correct her 20-40 vision. In addition, at 5 feet, 41/2 inches, she struggled with weight problems. Her knee problems would require many surgeries. And as if those obstacles weren't enough, her family could not afford the traditional tennis whites, leaving her to play in a blouse and shorts her mother had made. Though fiercely competitive and gifted, King had to sit out the photo session of her peers in the Southern California Junior Championships because of her homespun outfit. Not yet a teen, she had already felt the stings of exclusion.