Billie Jean King (nee Moffitt) was born in 1943 in Long Beach, California. Her father, Bill, worked for the Long Beach Fire Dept and her mother Betty was a homemaker. Coming from a very athletic family, Billie’s father earned a tryout for an NBA team before becoming a firefighter and her mother was an accomplished swimmer.
Her brother, Randy Moffitt, became a professional basketball player and played in the major leagues for thirteen years. So with such a varied sporting background, it was no surprise that Billie Jean excelled.
However, tennis was not the first game that she tried. As a 10-year-old, she played softball on a 14U team that won the city championship. It was only when heading into the fifth grade that she decided to try her hand at tennis.
Early Tennis Career
Almost every path to success is paved with obstacles. And it was no different for Billie Jean Moffitt. Despite training hard and practising as much as she could, in 1955, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, she was barred from a group photo of junior tennis players because she wore the tennis shorts her mother made – not the tennis dress traditionally worn by female athletes.
Undeterred, Billie Jean continued with tennis and in 1958, she won her age bracket in the Southern California championship. The following year, in 1959, Billie Jean was coached by Alice Marble.
Soon after, she attended California State University from 1961 to 1964, juggling her studies, tennis tournaments, and work as a tennis instructor. That was when she first started to gain international recognition for the first time when she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title in 1961.
Billie Jean married Lawrence King in 1965 and, the following year, won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon. That was also the year 1966, when Billie Jean King was ranked #1 in the world in women’s tennis for the first time.
She went on to successfully defend that title in each of the following two years and added her first U.S. Open singles championship in 1967 and her only Australian Open triumph the following year.
Billie Jean King’s Achievements
The list of tennis accolades achieved by Billie Jean King is quite staggering. Between 1961 and 1979 she won:
- 20 Wimbledon titles
- 13 United States titles (including four singles)
- 4 French titles (one singles)
- 2 Australian titles (one singles)
- A total of 39 Grand Slam titles
In 1972, she won the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon to claim three Grand Slam titles in one year.
Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs
In the 70s, Billie Jean began a relationship with another woman, which remained a secret for many years. However, when the affair became public knowledge in 1981, it caused such controversy that she lost all her endorsement deals.
And yet she continued on, both on the court and off, fighting for equality in the sport. She lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open. Through her hard work and dedication, The U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes.
Remember, this was still the 70s, with plenty of detractors. One of the loudest was Bobby Riggs, a top men’s player in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, a 55-year-old Riggs was a self-described hustler and male chauvinist.
He claimed the women’s game was so inferior to the men’s game that even someone as old as he was could beat the current top female players. When he challenged and defeated Margaret Court 6–2, 6–1, Billie Jean King, having previously turned down the offer to play Riggs, realised she had to step up and school him.
The game, dubbed ‘The Battle Of The Sexes’, attracted an audience of 90 million people worldwide via primetime television. So on September 20th 1973, Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome.
Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, and earned the winner-take-all prize of $100,000.
Battle of the Sexes Movie
Released in 2017, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ offers a nuanced depiction of one of the most groundbreaking events in tennis history: the 1973 exhibition match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. This film is a compelling blend of sports drama and biographical insight, immersing viewers in the era’s sociopolitical context.
At the heart of the film are two powerful performances. Emma Stone portrays Billie Jean King, encapsulating both her competitive spirit on the court and the personal struggles she encountered off it. Steve Carell, meanwhile, plays Bobby Riggs, effectively illustrating his ostentatious persona and the complexities beneath his public image.
What sets ‘Battle of the Sexes’ apart is its intricate exploration of King’s personal life, alongside the match narrative. It delves into King’s advocacy for women’s rights in sports, spotlighting the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association and her role in securing equal prize money for women. Concurrently, the film sensitively portrays her realization of her own sexuality and the pressures she faced in her private life.
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The staging of the historic match is well-executed in the film. The directors, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton capture the excitement and intensity of the real-life event, immersing the audience in the heated, high-stakes atmosphere of the King-Riggs match. The film does an excellent job of translating the match’s outcome (which I won’t spoil here, though it’s a matter of public record) into a dramatic climax for the narrative.
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Even for those who aren’t typically drawn to sports films, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is worth watching. It serves as an important reflection on gender inequality, both within sports and in society at large. More than just a retelling of a famous tennis match, it’s a tribute to the remarkable strides made by Billie Jean King, and a testament to the enduring relevance of her achievements.
In essence, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is an engaging film that showcases the courage and resilience of Billie Jean King. It invites us to revisit a critical period in sports history and to appreciate the ongoing fight for equality – both on and off the tennis court.
What is Billie Jean King Doing Now?
King is the founder of the W.T.A., the Women’s Sports Foundation and a co-founder with her husband of World Team Tennis; she has coached the U.S.A. National Team and their Olympic squad.
She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows has the distinction of being the first such sports arena to be named after a woman.
Off the court, she has worked to promote women’s tennis and sport and was instrumental in gaining equal pay for women tennis players. Amongst the many honours she has been awarded are the 2007 Sunday Times Sports Woman of the Year for contributions to the sport on and off the court.
In 2009 she was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, the highest civilian honour in the U.S.A.
In 2014, she founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to addressing the critical issues required to achieve diverse, inclusive leadership in the workforce. Today she lives in New York with her partner Ilana Kloss.
Q: How old is Billie Jean King?
A: Born on November 22, 1943, as of July 9, 2023, Billie Jean King is 79.
Q: Who is Billie Jean King married to?
A: Billie Jean King is married to Ilana Kloss. The couple has been together since 1987. Ilana Kloss is a former professional tennis player from South Africa and a former doubles world No. 1.
Q: What is the Billie Jean King Cup?
A: The Billie Jean King Cup, formerly known as the Fed Cup, is the premier international team competition in women’s tennis. It was renamed in honour of Billie Jean King in 2020 to acknowledge her tireless advocacy for gender equality in sports and her contribution to tennis.
Q: What was the ‘Battle of the Sexes’?
A: The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was a highly publicized tennis match held in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, a former world No. 1 men’s player. The match was significant for its spectacle and wider cultural implications, becoming a symbol of the fight for gender equality.
Q: What has been the impact of Billie Jean King’s advocacy?
A: Billie Jean King’s advocacy has profoundly impacted tennis and wider society. She helped secure equal prize money for men and women in the US Open in 1973, and her efforts eventually led to equal pay at all four Grand Slam tournaments. Her influence extends beyond tennis, as she co-founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports Magazine and has been a lifelong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. King’s work inspires and drives progress in the fight for equality.
Q: Where was Billie Jean King born?
A: Billie Jean King was born in Long Beach, California, USA. She started playing tennis at a young age in the public parks of southern California.
Q: What major tournaments did Billie Jean King win during her career?
A: During her illustrious career, Billie Jean King won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. Her victories span all four major tournaments:
- Australian Open: She won a singles title in 1968, a doubles title in 1968, and a mixed doubles title in 1968.
- French Open (Roland Garros): King won a singles title in 1972, doubles titles in 1972 and 1979, and mixed doubles titles in 1967 and 1970.
- Wimbledon: She achieved great success here, with six singles titles (1966-1968, 1972-1973, 1975), ten doubles titles (1961-1962, 1965, 1967-1968, 1970-1973, 1979), and four mixed doubles titles (1967, 1971, 1973-1974).
- US Open: She secured four singles titles (1967, 1971-1972, 1974), a doubles title in 1974, and four mixed doubles titles (1967, 1971, 1973, 1976).
Q: What other awards and honours has Billie Jean King received?
A: Billie Jean King has been awarded numerous honours for her contributions to sports and society. These include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the highest civilian honour in the United States. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City, where the US Open is held, was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in her honour.
She is also recognized by Life Magazine as one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century”, and was named one of the “100 Most Influential People of the Year” by Time Magazine in 2020. Her continued work for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights has been acknowledged globally, further cementing her legacy.