During her competitive days, Billie Jean King was one of the most successful players in women’s tennis. However, King is probably more recognized for her political support of women’s tennis, and her fight to achieve respect for lesbian and gay athletes in tennis, and in sport in general.
Born in Long Beach, California in 1943 as Billie Jean Moffatt, she began playing tennis at the age of 11. King learned the game playing on municipal courts, rather than the route most successful players take in tennis in the private clubs. When King began competing in the elite levels of tennis, the sport was strictly amateur. She first entered Wimbledon in 1961, and only two years later she advanced to the final. She won her first Wimbledon title in 1966, at the young age of 22. Her first place prize for winning was a $60 gift voucher for Harrods department store. By the end of her remarkable career, King would amass a remarkable 39 Grand Slam titles.
Although women’s tennis was amateur, King and a few other players began arguing for professional status. Indeed, King’s competitive performances and training regimen took on a very professional tone. In fact, it was King, and not men’s player John McEnroe, who started the practice of arguing against umpires’ decisions on the court, although it is the latter player who is better known for such antics. King’s training and competitive practices made her a truly modern and “professional” player, but they also cost her much public support.
King’s major initiative was to start a professional tour, which began in 1968. Operating outside the auspices of the “official” tournaments and organizations, the new professional tour had trouble attracting many of the top international players. Interestingly, Wimbledon allowed professionals soon after King’s tour started. The rest of the world’s tours permitted professionals soon after.
Among King’s other major political initiatives, she aligned herself with the pro-abortion movement, Title IX legislation in the U.S. (the purpose of which was to equalize girls’ and women’s funding in education), and she negotiated a deal with the Philip Morris Tobacco Company to set up the Virginia Slims tour. Finally, the famous match between herself and self-styled “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in 1973, which King won, brought much public attention to King and to the growing women’s athletic movement.
Finally, in 1981, it was revealed that King had a lesbian relationship with her secretary. At first King denied the allegation, but later she admitted to the relationship. Instead of hiding her sexuality, which is what female lesbian athletes had been doing for years, King was the first major sports superstar to come out. As such, King will be justifiably recognized as one of the first and most important fighters for the sexual rights of gays and lesbians in sport.