No One Plays the Game Like Billie Jean King

“Money helps women have power,” says Billie Jean King. It’s August, and King has been watching the U.S. Open from her home on New York’s Upper West Side. A few weeks from now, the event will crown Naomi Osaka its winner and award her $3 million, sending her home with the same cash prize as the tournament’s male winner. In sports as in the wider world, equal pay is rare. The fact that the U.S. Open has mandated it is due in no small part to King.

At 76, King appreciates better than most that ambition requires financing: 50 years ago, she and eight other top-ranked women’s tennis players—dubbed the Original 9—formed their own league to protest staggering gender inequalities across the sport. Despite their successes, the women commanded little respect. Their stand in 1970 changed that, and King, as the group’s leader, became the unofficial godfather of equal pay.

Her work is now more relevant to women than ever. Her skill on the court forced the world to see women as fierce competitors. Her activism helped ensure the passage of Title IX—the landmark law that prohibits discrimination in education and other federally funded programs “on the basis of sex” and in 1972 changed opportunities for women in sports forever. King has continued to throw her weight behind fights for social change happening in the world of sports and outside of it. She’s not one to just tweet or write a check and call it there. She’s in the room, asking for the latest numbers on compensation for top female athletes. She’s on the phone, coaching women through their next moves. She’s in the trenches, strategizing with the next generation of athletes who are determined to be recognized for their worth.

In 2019, King doled out her signature brand of no-holds-barred advice to the U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team as its gold-medal winners sought to form a players’ association to fight for equal treatment and fair pay. A few months later, team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield was sitting in King’s suite at the U.S. Open, overwhelmed.

“I’m watching both the men and the women receive equal pay and seeing this building filled to watch these women compete. This is what she built,” Coyne Schofield says. “This is why she sacrificed everything and risked her entire career for a $1 contract 50 years ago—in my eyes, it’s still the most lucrative contract in sports history.”

King was born in 1943 in Long Beach, California, the daughter of a firefighter and a homemaker. To hear her narrate her childhood is to listen to a woman who was sure she was destined for greatness. She explains it with the candor that’s helped define her career; no bragging, no self-importance. It is a simple fact: Even as a kid, she wanted to win.

At seven, she remembers, she stood next to her mother as she washed the dishes: “I just looked up at her and I said, ‘Mommy, mommy, I’m going to do something great with my life! I know I am.’” Her mother, whom King credits with keeping her “level,” replied, “That’s fine, just keep drying the dishes.”

King’s introduction to tennis came in the fifth grade when a friend asked if she’d like to play with her at a local club. “I go, ‘What’s tennis?’” King recalls, via Zoom. (The friend—Susan Williams—has been on King’s morning “blessing list” ever since, and the two have remained close: “I always tell her, ‘If you hadn’t asked me to join you that day, I just wonder what my life would’ve been like.’”)

King loved the game from the beginning but knew her parents wouldn’t be able to afford private lessons. Her softball coach mentioned that kids in the neighborhood could get free instruction once a week with the local parks and rec department. During her first lesson—the second time King set foot on a tennis court—she made up her mind: “I decided to be number one, at the end of that lesson.” Later on Zoom, she adds, “I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Within a few months, King was a fixture on the courts in Long Beach, and her game was improving. One afternoon when she was about 13, she looked up and saw a sea of white. White shoes, white clothes, white socks, white balls. And around her, white people. (This was before she met Althea Gibson, who became the first Black person to win a Grand Slam in 1956.) King remembers it as a defining moment, the instant she promised herself that she would fight to make tennis a fairer sport. It felt like a revelation, and it gave her purpose.

At the time, tennis wasn’t a professional sport. And although its competitions were held all over the world, its players in the United States were short on both financial power and public respect. “I didn’t know the word platform at 13,” King says. But she did know that if she wanted to have a real impact, she’d need clout. “I knew that as a girl, I would have it tougher. I knew that I was not Black or of color, so I knew that made my life a little easier. But I thought I had to be number one or no one would listen.”

It didn’t take her long. She was 15 when she won her first big tournament. In 1961, at age 17, she won women’s doubles at Wimbledon—her first attempt at the title. Between 1959 and her official retirement in 1983, she won 39 Grand Slams, 12 singles titles, 16 women’s doubles titles, and 11 mixed doubles titles.

In August 1967, when King was in her 20s, the New York Times noted that her “hard, grueling game has led her to the top of women’s amateur tennis.” The paper of record went on to declare that following her “Triple Crown” at that summer’s Wimbledon games, there could be no question: “Mrs. Billie Jean Moffitt King is now comfortably lodged as the world’s No. 1” athlete in women’s tennis.

She remembers this as the moment she “stepped it up,” as she puts it, in terms of her activism. That same article in the Times reported that she was furious when she found coverage of women’s tennis in newspapers’ style or culture pages. (“That’s the trouble with this sport,” she reportedly told one Chicago journalist. “We’ve got to get it off the Society page and onto the sports pages!”) And she refused to be demure on the court, despite the fact that she’d been threatened with censure for some of her “less homey expressions.”

“In basketball or football the players are cussing out there like troopers,” King told the Times. “But if you’re a tennis player you’ve got to be jolly nice all the time.”

Over Zoom now, she lifts her hands and smiles: The perks of being number one—see?

In 1970, two years before the passage of Title IX, women’s professional tennis was barely established and the top-ranked women were fighting for crumbs. The men’s circuit, inflated with resources, was booming; women’s events were dropped off the calendar. The entire women’s prize pool totaled a paltry $5,000. The women wanted to be paid fairly and treated fairly, but above all, they wanted a fair shot at opportunities to play.

“What were we going to do?” says Rosie Casals, a 12-time major championship winner and King’s longtime doubles partner. “If we boycotted, we wouldn’t play, and then what would happen to us? Would we be relegated to Siberia or what?”

It was in the locker room of the U.S. Open that the women realized they couldn’t reform a system stacked against them. They needed to build a new one. King—who had already been called tennis’s “most colorful and controversial player”—was an obvious leader.

On September 23, nine of the top players in women’s tennis—King, Casals, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Peaches Bartkowicz, and Kristy Pigeon—announced plans to start their own tour, opting out of the professional association that had undervalued them. The women each signed $1 contracts, which allowed them to form and enter into their own tour, dubbed the Virginia Slims Circuit, where they set the terms. (In 1973 it would officially become the Women’s Tennis Association.)

The “Battle of the Sexes” took place at the height of second wave feminism in 1973 and became a symbolic match with men vs. women. King defeated Bobby Riggs in three straight sets.
Jim Garrett. Bettmann Archive. Jim Garrett. Allsport UK. Bettmann Archive. Walt Disney Television. Bettmann Archive. All: Getty Images.
“The fact that Billie Jean was able to essentially call the bluff of the system in order to do right by the women was incredible, and the fact that those women followed her into battle is testament to her leadership,” says Christiane Amanpour, the CNN chief international correspondent. Amanpour grew up watching King at Wimbledon—they’ve been close friends for over a decade. “They would die in the trenches for her, and that’s something really remarkable. Very few people have that influence.”

The sporting community was less impressed. “We were ostracized. We were told we were making a horrible mistake, that we were going nowhere with this move,” says Casals.

But King knew the money would speak for itself. The Original 9—along with Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis Magazine and the organizer and promoter of the new women’s tour—hit the pavement and the media circuit, drawing crowds and sponsorship dollars. Within two years the women’s tour comprised 23 tournaments with a championship pot of $100,000. It was the most money on the table for a female athlete in history (the median income for a woman working full-time in 1972 was just $6,050)—and it gave audiences 100,000 reasons to watch the women play.

King was 27 and hungry. She told her then husband Larry King, an attorney and tennis promoter, “I want to make over $100,000. And I’m going to have to say that publicly, because I want people to notice it and start following the tour.”

Now she recalls, “I just knew if they had a reason to start watching how much money I was making, that would help the tour.” (King credits Larry for her feminist awakening. “He’s the one that pointed out I was a second-class citizen in college—he helped me put that in perspective.”)

Even in our “evolved,” modern era, King talks about money in a way that’s liable to make some women cringe—frequently, shamelessly, and without apology. Halfway through our interview, she interrupts the conversation to lean into the camera and ask if we think we’re being paid fairly. Do we know what our male counterparts make? Did we negotiate for more when we took our jobs? “Are you getting the same? Or not?”

“I think women need to talk about money a lot more and want to make a lot of money,” she says. “People have to invest in women. And I don’t mean just women investing in women; I mean everyone. If you help make it right for women, you’ll make the world a better place.”

In 1973, at the height of second-wave feminism, King would compete in her most consequential game to date, known as the Battle of the Sexes: King vs. self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs.

Riggs, whom Steve Carrell immortalized in the 2017 film of the same name, once said: “Number one, women should stay in the bedroom. Number two, they should get to the kitchen. Number three, they should support the man.”

King annihilated Riggs in three straight sets.

“The very first memory that I had of Billie, before I even knew Billie, came from my mother, who was not a sports fan at all,” says Zina Garrison, the 1988 women’s doubles Olympic gold medalist. “I was outside playing. I will never forget. My mom came outside, and she was yelling, ‘The lady beat the man! The lady beat the man!’ I wasn’t even playing tennis then, but what I understood was how impactful she was for women to step out and be the person that women could possibly be.”

Garrison remembers watching at the 2000 Olympics as a man approached King. “He was literally crying. He had a daughter, and he was telling Billie that because of her, he looked at things differently.”

King stopped competing on the court in 1983, but she didn’t retreat from the goals she’d set at 13: She wanted to be the best. And she wanted to change the game for women. She fulfilled the first in 1967, becoming the sport’s top-ranked player. With the second, she still has work to do.

A 2015 analysis showed that over the previous quarter-century, local news outlets devoted just 3% of airtime to women’s sports; ESPN allocated even less, with 2% of their programming dedicated to women. In the 2017–2018 season, the Women’s Sports Foundation found that women had 62,236 fewer participation opportunities than men in NCAA sports. And of the highest-paid athletes in the world, flush with lucrative sponsorship deals, only two women rank in the top 50.

The stats infuriate yet energize King. Her partner, Ilana Kloss, says King is prepared to advocate for gender equality to everyone from the president of the United States to the person sitting next to her in a restaurant.

Decades before the start of their relationship, Kloss—who became the number-one doubles player in 1976 and was the former commissioner of World Team Tennis—met King while working as a ball girl for one of King’s matches in South Africa. “One day I was on one of the courts just hitting some tennis balls with my dad before the matches started, and Billie walked by and said, ‘Looks like she hits the ball really well. Would you mind if I came on the court and hit a few balls with her?’” Kloss says. “That one interaction, of having someone say that they saw I had talent and believed in me, changed my life. And I have seen that happen again and again and again.”

“She doesn’t just slap her name on things,” says Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, who has known King since she was a cub sports reporter in Atlanta. “If she’s going to be involved, she’s in it to win it.” King is not content to sit at dinners or pose for pictures. “She’s always pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing,” says Roberts. “And not just for herself…. She’s very inclusive but also collaborative. She’s a leader, but she wants to groom others to be leaders, to see what she knows we all have within ourselves.”

Roberts knows that from experience. When she was given the chance to pivot from sports journalism to general news, she hesitated. She confided in King, wondering how she’d react. “I’ll never forget how she looked at me, and it was almost like in Moonstruck when Cher yells, ‘Snap out of it!’ She challenged me. And she said, ‘You’re afraid. You have got to be willing to venture outside of your comfort zone. You’ll still talk about sports where you’re going, and you’re going to bring us with you to a bigger stage.’”

Kloss, as King’s both personal and professional partner (Kloss cofounded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014), has seen that relentless urging up close for decades: “I think when you’re with her, you feel like you can do anything.”

In that locker room in 1970, the Original 9 were thinking as much about future generations as they were themselves. King, goal-oriented as ever, codified their hopes for women: First, that for those who were good enough, there would be opportunities for them to compete. Second, that they would be respected for their game—not how they looked playing it. (“That’s all they talked about. They never talked about our good forehand, or if we were smart,” King says. “That was really hard to take, day in and day out.”) And third, that they would be able to make a living. “Remember, we come from the $14-a-day group,” King says. “We knew we weren’t going to make the big bucks. I didn’t even make $2 million dollars when I retired at 40—Serena [Williams] is at $93 million and still counting.”

It’s thanks to King that a cash-out like Williams’s is possible. In tennis the playing field has been leveled—of the 10 highest-paid women in sports, nine are tennis players—but women in other sports are still fighting. “Can we build a Billie Jean King for every sport?” asks Coyne Schofield, captain of the U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team.

At the U.S. Open earlier this month, Naomi Osaka, the reigning highest-paid female athlete in the world, wore a series of masks stamped with the names of unarmed Black men and women who were killed in acts of racial violence. She won her second U.S. Open title—and the $3 million in prize money that goes to both the men’s and women’s champions—standing on the courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It was the manifestation of King’s life’s work. Osaka, Williams—“somebody had to come before them, to have this platform available,” King says. “And I think it’s fantastic, because they’re using it.”

King is no longer ranked and she doesn’t vie for titles, but she isn’t watching the action from afar, either. She’s still in the thick of it. For King, there’s no such thing as being off the clock. “She hates to go to bed at night,” Kloss says. “I’ll tell her to turn the light off. She’s falling asleep. She does not want the day to end, because it’s one less day that she’s going to be on earth to accomplish something, and to take all the stuff in. She’s just so full. People always say, ‘God, you’ve done so much.’ And she gets upset. She says, ‘I’m not done yet.’”

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