Billie Jean King
Champions Women's Rights
King took a stand on the red-hot issue of abortion, when in 1971 she admitted to having had one. Despite the highly personal revelation, she felt defensive about publicity regarding hers and her husband's private life.
In 1972 she won the French Open and Wimbledon singles, ending a three-year drought in the latter. She also won her third U.S. Open singles title, which awarded her $10,000. Nastase, the men's singles champion, won $25,000. King was irate. It was hardly the first time she recognized prize-money disparity, but it was the last time she would remain quiet about it. When she complained to the U.S. tennis establishment, she was told that men were paid more because few people watch women's tennis. But King insisted women's tennis enjoyed many enthusiastic fans. In fact, when Hyams interviewed King in 1975 in a hotel coffee shop, he says they were interrupted half a dozen times by autograph seekers, mostly men.
King continued to sweep up Grand Slam titles and break ground for her sport. Fed up with the tennis establishment's attitude and lack of financial commitment to women's tennis, she took action. After she and a small group of other players refused to play a tournament where the women's prize money was one eighth of the men's, King organized the first women's-only professional tennis tournament. When the nine defectors were threatened with suspension by the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), King, with the help of World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman, put together their own prize money. The nine players all agreed to accept a $1 contract from Heldman, who secured sponsorship from Philip Morris Company just as it was to target a new cigarette, Virginia Slims, to women. Thus the Virginia Slims Championships were launched in Houston. By 1973 the tour covered 22 cities and had $775,000 in prize money. After its 1994 season, the Slims became the Women's International Tennis Association Tour Championship.
In 1973 King was elected first president of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), a players' union. She also created "team tennis," America's only professional co-ed team sport, and became the first woman to coach a professional co-ed team when she signed on with the Philadelphia Freedoms. But she cemented her status as a heroine of the women's movement with her match against Bobby Riggs, a self-proclaimed "male chauvinist pig," who claimed even a mediocre male player, such as the 55-year-old Riggs himself, could beat the best female player, regardless of age.
Riggs, who won Wimbledon (1939) and the U.S. national championships (1939, 1941), had beaten Australian Margaret Smith Court in May 1973. So when King took up his challenge in September, in an exhibition that became known as the Battle of the Sexes, the stakes were higher. King says she was sick to her stomach before the match, which was unusual for her. "Sissy Bug will murder this Riggs," her father told Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick. "I hope Sissy shuts him up good. … Sissy will kill him, bet you five."
Bill Moffitt was right. His daughter ruled the court that night. Before 30,472 fans (a record crowd for one tennis match) in the Houston Astrodome, and 40 million television viewers, King beat Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and became a potent symbol of the women's movement. King went home with the $100,000 purse, the largest amount of prize money ever paid for a single match. "Billie Jean King didn't just raise consciousness, which was the feminist mantra then," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. "No, she absolutely changed consciousness." In 2001, the TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby dramatized this event, with Holly Hunter playing King, Ron Silver as Riggs.
- Billie Jean King - Awards And Accomplishments
- Billie Jean King - Chronology
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