Billie Jean King Turns 80

Battle of the Sexes: the Female Tennis Player who "beat" a Male Tennis Player Turns 80

Billie Jean King, who celebrates 80 today, is an athlete who changed the world of tennis completely, she was a partner in turning the sport into a professional one and equalizing the salaries of women and men.

King near the 2022 Australian Cup (Photo: Shutterstock)

This week we are in the week of tennis, and after we wrote about Amos Mansdorf, today it is the turn of the tennis player who changed the world of female tennis in particular, and the world of tennis as a whole and reached her 80th birthday today. Billie Jean King who, in addition to being a great tennis player, was a prominent feminist activist - was born on November 22, 1943.

Billie Jean Moffitt King was born into an athletic family in Long Beach, California. Her father was an amateur athlete in addition to his work as a firefighter and also played basketball and soccer. Her mother excelled in swimming and her younger brother Randy would later become a professional baseball player. Billie also excelled in baseball and softball and even won the Long Beach Softball Championship playing with girls 4-5 years older than her.

At the age of 11, her parents suggested that she switch to a more feminine sport, and she decided to go to the British royal sport, and started playing tennis on the public courts near her home, when one of them, many years later, was named after her. Already as a child she was characterized by an aggressive playing style that disturbed her coach. Her first conflict with her coaches was when she was banned from joining a group photo because she was wearing shorts her mother had made for her and not the traditional white tennis dress.

Already at the age of 14, she was sure of herself when she informed the Olympic champion in pole vaulting, Bob Richards, that she was going to be the best tennis player in the world. She began to fulfill her promise already at the age of 17 when she reached fourth place in the world, a year later she won the Wimbledon doubles championship together with her peer Karen Hantze. Hantze and Moffitt were the youngest couple in history to win Wimbledon. Her Wimbledon win was the first of 20 in total (singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles) which is a joint world record with Martina Navratilova.

Billie Jean King completes a revolution in the world of tennis

In 1962 she beat the Australian Margaret Court who was the best tennis player in the world at that time. In 1966 she won her first Grand Slam in singles tournaments, when she won Wimbledon. A year later she already won two when she defended her title and added a win at the US Open Championship. She was known as an aggressive, very competitive tennis player with many powerful strokes. Her style of play made her excel mainly in grass tournaments.

At that time, tennis was amateur, and King was also forced to work as a tennis instructor at a college in California, because of the ban on professionalism, money was transferred unofficially to senior athletes and King came out strongly against the American Federation claiming that it was blocking the progress of the industry. Among other things, thanks to her struggle, tennis moved into the era of professionalism, with her being among the first to benefit from it when she became the first athlete to cross the $100,000 mark as profit from games.

King with the America's Cup in 1966 (photo: from Wikimedia)

King did not stop here, and fought within the professional era for equality between men and women. After winning the third time in the United States Championship, she announced that if she did not receive the same amount that Ilie Năstase received who won the men's tournament, she would not participate in the tournament next year. Following her struggle a year later in 1973, the US Open became the first major tournament to pay the same amount to winners of both sexes.

Billie Jean King precedes Golda Meir

In the same year, another historic feminist event occurred when Bobby Riggs, a former tennis player who made a living from exhibition matches, bragged that he was a "male chauvinist pig", saying that even though he was 55 years old and well past his prime, he could beat any woman. The first to respond to the opportunity was Margaret Court, who was at her peak when only three years earlier she completed a golden Grand Slam (winning the four Grand Slams), and in the same year she "only" won three Grand Slams and lost to him in two sets.

King, who initially refused to respond to the teasing, said that she realized that if she did not beat him, it would set women's tennis back fifty years. On September 20, 1973, King defeated Riggs 0:3 in front of 30,000 spectators, and another 50 million around the world. It was later revealed with the help of an ESPN investigation that Riggs was heavily in debt to the Mafia who forced him to lose on the field so they could make money gambling.

Bobby Riggs (photo: from Wikimedia)

Three films have been released over the years about the match against Riggs, with the first in 2001 called "When Billie beat Bobby", in 2014 a documentary film was released about the match. In 2017, a movie called "Battle of the Sexes" was released. In 1975, she was chosen by the magazine "Seventeen" as the "most admired woman in the world" ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Five years without losing a Grand Slam

The first five years of the 1970s were her best years, when she did not lose a single Grand Slam final, reaching seven finals out of ten tournaments in which she participated. In six of the ten tournaments she did not lose a set at any stage. In 1976, she won the Federation Cup with the United States team.

King continued to play singles tennis until 1983 and doubles tennis until 1990. When she won a total of 39 Grand Slams (singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles). At the age of 47 she played her last doubles match, when her match partner was 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati. King was then in her 47th year. After she retired, she established a scholarship fund for female tennis athletes funded by investors that she recruited, and organized scholarships for female tennis players in colleges.

Obama, gave her the medal (Photo: Shutterstock)

After retiring from playing, she began coaching the United States team, when in 1996 she won the Federation Cup and two Olympic gold medals for the team. She won great respect in the United States and the world over the years as she coached the national team until 2003. The Federation Cup is today named after her. In 2006, the National Tennis Center in New York was named after her. In August 2009, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from United States President Barack Obama. In 2021 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.

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