When Billie Jean King (then Billie Jean Moffit) was five years old, she turned to her mother as they were drying dishes and said, “I’m going to do something great with my life.” Her mother, forever supportive of her children, but also grounded, said, “That’s fine,” and went on drying dishes.
At that age Billie Jean didn’t know what she would be great at, or how many things she would do that allowed herself and others to do great things in life. Around age eleven, Billie Jean found her passion and her plan: she would be the number one tennis player in the world, or at least that is what she told her mother after a free tennis lesson. Less than ten years later, she was well on her way to achieving her goal, after winning her first Doubles title at Wimbledon.
During her phenomenal career, this champion tennis player earned an astounding 20 Wimbledon titles and won four U.S. Opens and three World Team Tennis Championships, among other victories. Billie Jean King lived up to her promise: she was ranked as the number one singles player five times in a six year span. But Billie Jean did more than just live up to her dreams of being a world-class tennis player; she revolutionized women’s sports and championed for social change and equal rights for all. She proved that women could compete as well as men and she moved tennis from the country clubs to the national spotlight.
Billie Jean grew up in Long Beach, California with her brother, Randy Moffit, her father, a firefighter, and her mother, a homemaker. From early on Billy Jean and Randy could be counted on to play just about any sport. Billy Jean’s first favorite sport was softball; she didn’t get into tennis until she was 11 years old. Once she took her first few swings of the racquet, however, tennis became her focus. Billie Jean’s parents worked hard to support her; tennis was largely a sport known to country clubs and wealthier families, not a family of four living on a firefighter’s salary. Despite these obstacles, Billie Jean emerged a competitive, talented player who was on her way to the top ranks in the sport. At age 17, after her first Wimbledon tournament, she was the number four ranked women’s tennis player.
Winning tennis tournaments wasn’t enough for Billy Jean. Winning respect loomed larger on her agenda. She was a first-hand witness to the inequities that women players confronted at every tournament. Claiming that women wouldn’t draw the crowds that men did, tournament sponsors and organizers paid women significantly less in prize money than they did men. All that would change as King, and a handful of other women players, lobbied to bring financial equality to the sport. They developed a bargaining union, which began to bring progress in the late sixties and early seventies. In 1971, Billie Jean King was the first professional female athlete to win more than $100,000 in one year.
During this time, the Women’s Rights Movement was in full swing, and while moving forward in creating financial equality in the tennis world, she was still looking to win equal respect. So, in 1973, when Bobby Riggs, an aging tennis champ of the forties and fifties, declared that women would never play tennis as well as men could and challenged Billie Jean to a match, King took him up on the offer. The match, which would later be dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes,” brought a record number of live spectators and television viewers, and as Billie Jean served and returned plays, defeating Riggs with ease, she won three victories that day: one on the court, one for women’s rights, and one for tennis’ popularity.
Much more than one of tennis’ greatest male or female players, Billie Jean has been recognized by many awards and even a song. In 1975, Elton John, a huge fan of Billie Jean King, recorded Philadelphia Freedom in her honor. The same year that she defeated Riggs, King was named “Sportsperson of the Year” by Sports Illustrated, and in 1990, Life Magazine included her as one of the “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.” An inductee to both the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1990) and the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1987), Billie Jean has also been honored with the Arthur Ashe Award, which is given to athletes whose contributions transcend the world of sports. King is the only athlete to be given the prestigious Elizabeth Blackwell Award (1998) from Hobart & William Smith Colleges. The award, only given when a worthy candidate emerges, is given to “a woman whose life exemplifies outstanding service to humanity.” She has coached U.S. Olympic squads to four medals and, in 1993, King received tennis’ highest award, the Phillippe Chatrier Award, which recognizes individuals for extraordinary contributions to the sport of tennis. All of these accolades add up to a distinguished career of someone who has in fact, as the five-year-old Billy Jean Moffit predicted, done something great with her life.
While King hasn’t entered a professional tournament since 1983, she has continued to make huge strides for tennis and her other passions. She has created foundations that help to enhance the lives of women and girls through sports and bring about cooperation and equity among all people, regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference. Her foundation, Billie Jean King World TeamTennis Charities, works to promote “health, fitness, education, and social change,” by raising money to fund efforts within a wide variety of issues, from supporting tennis players with diabetes to ensuring that women have equal opportunities to enter fields normally dominated by men, such as the construction industry. She serves on the board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and continues to work with the two other foundations she co-founded: the Women’s Sports Foundation and Go Girl Go. Billie Jean King has made earning a living as a professional sportswoman a reality.