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Billie Jean King

A Safer Place

Between 1961 and 1979, King collected six singles, ten doubles, and four mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon, and reached 27 final events. King, the only woman to win U.S. singles titles on all surfaces (grass, clay, indoor, hard), holds a singles title in every Grand Slam event. Even upon her 1983 retirement, King was still ranked 13th in the world. King and Rosemary Casals virtually dominated women's doubles. King took numerous late-career wins, including the 1979 Wimbledon doubles and 1980 U.S. Open doubles, both with Martina Navratilova. She helped the U.S. to seven Federation Cup victories. During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, King coached the American women's team, which included Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, and Venus Williams and Serena Williams. The team came home with two golds (Venus Willams in singles, Venus and Serena Williams in doubles) and a bronze (Monica Seles in singles).

In 1999, King urged Wimbledon officials to set the prize money for women ($651,000) equal to that of men ($724,000). "Treating women as less valuable than men generates ill-will that is disproportionate to the amount of money you are saving," she urged in her statement.

Related Biography: Tennis Promoter Gladys Heldman

Tennis promoter Gladys Medalie Heldman grew up as an non-athletic, intellectual young woman. A 1942 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Heldman received her M.A. in medieval studies the following year from the University of California, Berkeley.

Born May 13, 1922 in New York, Heldman took up tennis late, after her marriage in 1947 to Julius Heldman, the 1936 left-handed U.S. Junior champion. She quickly adapted, playing in the U.S. Championships from 1949 to 1953, and at Wimbledon in 1954. Both her daughters, Trixie and Julie, held national junior rankings. Julie won the Italian Open in 1969 and ranked fifth in the world that year and again in 1974. Heldman achieved USTA rankings in the top ten in women's 35 doubles, women's 45 doubles, and mother-daughter events.

In 1953, she founded World Tennis magazine, which she edited until 1972. Heldman aligned herself and her magazine with the female players, most notably Billie Jean King and Rosemary Casals, King's doubles partner, who rebelled against the male tennis establishment. Heldman and the "Houston Nine" (King, Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Nancy Richey, Kristy Pigeon and Judy Tegart Dalton) departed from the traditional, mixed-sex tournaments and in 1970 set up a women's-only tour, which, with backing from friend Joe Cullman, chairman of Philip Morris, became the hugely successful Virginia Slims Championships.

Shortly thereafter, Heldman brought the first women's pro tour to Europe in 1971 and Japan in 1972. She has received numerous awards, including the U.S. Tennis Writers award in 1965, World Championship Tennis award in 1980, and the Women's Sports Foundation award in 1982. In 1979 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She wrote three books on tennis and one novel, The Harmonetics Investigation (Crown, 1979). She lives with her husband in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Always outspoken on women's rights, King was initially reticent about gay rights. Then, former lover Marilyn Barnett, a Beverly Hills hairdresser, "outed" her in 1981. King has long been openly gay, though the attention has cost her about $1.5 million in endorsements. She lost sponsorship of the women's tour after publicly acknowledging her homosexuality. King, never fully comfortable living her life in public, is more an effective organizer and strategist. She told Michele Kort of The Advocate magazine she was trying to work within corporations to get them to set up domestic-partner benefits. "I think it's better if you do those things internally, rather than talking about them publicly," she said.

Clearly wounded by Barnett's palimony suit, King remained silent about her sexuality for quite a while, much to the criticism of gay activists. She said she feared a backlash. "It's really tough if I hurt the business [team tennis]," she told Kort, "because it ends up hurting others, not just me." Still, King said gay young athletes being open about their sexuality "will help set them free." She added, "Each person's circumstances are unique, so I think it's impossible to judge whether another person should come out. You just hope they will on their own time and their own terms. And, hopefully, we'll make the world a safer place so young people will feel safe to deal with their sexuality and whatever else."

King has supported various initiatives on behalf of tennis, sports, health, education, women, minorities, gays and lesbians, children, and families. Today she remains an activist for health, fitness, education, and social change. She sits on the board of directors for the WTA, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the National AIDS Fund. She is also the national ambassador for AIM, which assists handicapped children, and is a member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. King has regularly worked as a sports commentator for numerous networks and cable stations. Most recently, King was captain of the U.S. Federation Cup team for the USTA. Her status as a catalyst has resonated beyond the tennis courts. Her outspokenness boosted measures such as the 1972 enactment of Title IX, which helped assure gender equity in sports funding and participation among female students. As for women's tennis itself, the changes are so immense there will be no going back.

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