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 for some thirteen years in the major leagues. So with such a varied sporting background, it was no surprise that Billie Jean also 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 practicing 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 being 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, that 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 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)
- Atotal 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.
Battle For Equality
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.
Baring in mind this was still the 70s, there were 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 as ‘The Battle Of The Sexes’ attracted an audience of 90 million people from around the world 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.
Life After Tennis
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 Barack 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.