Billie Jean King
Career Of Firsts
Playing with the cheaper nylon instead of gut strings and enduring the snobbery of players groomed at elite country clubs, she won her first junior championship at age 14. She told her family of her intention to one day win Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tourney.
A year following her first big win, King received a coaching offer from tennis legend Alice Marble, the lone voice to stand up to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in 1950 and insist the organization rescind its policy of segregation. Throughout the late 1950s, King spent weekends with Marble, whose biggest challenge was getting King off the court to attend
to her schoolwork. With additional coaching by Frank Brennan, she qualified for women's play at Wimbledon in 1961. She was only 18.
Though she suffered the first bout of what would become chronic sinus trouble in England, she was clearly at home at Wimbledon. King and Hantze, also 18, became the youngest team to win women's doubles there. They repeated as champions in 1962.
Returning from Europe, she graduated from Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences, which she financed with her job as a playground instructor. She was playing at the highest amateur level and was generating ample media attention, but at the time, athletic scholarships for women were practically unheard of. In 1965 she married Larry W. King, a pre-law student at the College of Applied Arts and Sciences and a year behind her. The two had been dating for about two years, with periods of interruptions, including a three-month break when she went to Australia on an all-expenses-paid trip to study with coach Mervyn Rose, former Davis Cup player for Australia. Rose changed King's forehand and service.
During the first six months of their marriage, King stayed home in an attempt to be "a good wife," as was the expectation at the time. But she was miserable. With her husband's full support, she started hitting a few balls around again and soon completely dedicated herself to tennis. A year later, she won her first Wimbledon singles. (The prize: a self-confidence boost and a gift certificate for tennis wear.) In 1966 she and doubles partner Rosemary Casals won the U.S. hard-court and indoor tournaments. In 1967 Casals and King took the doubles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the South African championship. King and Casals dominated women's doubles for years, becoming the only doubles team to have won American titles on grass, clay, indoor, and hard surfaces.
King even played a tournament while suffering from typhus. The Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year in 1967 for defending her Wimbledon singles title, which she would repeat again in 1968. Other wins of the decade included U.S. Open, French Open, and Australian Open titles. With such recognition and nine Wimbledon titles under her belt, King felt confident enough to approach the USLTA with champion Rod Laver and insist on prize money for tournament winners. Laver and King felt they should be fairly compensated; otherwise, the sport would remain available only to wealthy players. She referred to "shamateurism" as the USLTA's practice of paying top players under the table to guarantee their entry into association-sponsored tournaments.
Though the USLTA finally gave in to their demands—the "Open Era" began in 1968—the prize money it offered women was consistently, and steeply, far less than male players. When she won the Italian Open in 1970 she received $600; her male counterpart, Ilie Nastase, won $3,500. The men's purse in the Pacific Southwest Championships that year was $12,500 to the women's $1,500. Nonetheless, King in 1971 became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a season of competition. That year she won again at Wimbledon (mixed doubles), and the U.S. Open (singles, mixed doubles).