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Billie Jean King: A champion for tennis and women's rights

·5-min read

The 2022 US Open is in full swing at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. Record-setting audiences have been focused on Serena and Venus Williams, two champions on the court and also in the battle for equity in sports. Just this summer, Venus Williams penned an op-ed reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Title IX. However, few may realize the US Open venue is named after the original trailblazer for women’s rights.

Tennis icon Billie Jean King served as a major advocate for the passage of the landmark legislation that gave women and girls equal opportunities in education and sports. “Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. It is a law that speaks to the importance of gender equity in this country and stands as a benchmark of global significance,” King told the audience at a recent event celebrating the milestone. “The more we know about history, the more we know about ourselves. And most importantly, it helps us shape the future.”

American tennis player Billie Jean King in action at Wimbledon in 1964. Over the course of her career, King won 39 Grand Slam titles. (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images)
American tennis player Billie Jean King in action at Wimbledon in 1964. Over the course of her career, King won 39 Grand Slam titles. (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images)

King began shaping the future for women when she was just a child. At the tender age of 12, the Hall of Famer said she had an epiphany on the tennis court. “The sun was setting and I was sitting by myself, and I just remembered thinking something was wrong,” King told MAKERS in a 2012 interview. “Everybody who played tennis was white. The clothes were white, the shoes were white, the socks were white, the balls were white. And I remember asking myself, ‘Where is everybody else?’” It was at that moment King set a goal. “And that was to fight for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women, and that was going to be my life’s work.”

In 1961, at the age of 17, King gained international recognition when she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest pair to win a Wimbledon title in women’s doubles. King enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, that same year. But unlike male tennis champions Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, who were both granted full scholarships, King worked two jobs to pay for college. “Now do you think anybody cared?” King asked. “I guarantee you if it were reversed, you would have heard the whole world go crazy. We never can understand inclusion until we’ve been excluded, and that’s when we learn about it.”

90 million viewers tuned in to watch Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised match dubbed the 'Battle of the Sexes'. The tennis match took place in Houston, Texas in 1973. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images)
90 million viewers tuned in to watch Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised match dubbed the 'Battle of the Sexes'. The tennis match took place in Houston, Texas in 1973. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images)

In 1973, the year following Title IX’s passage, King played against one of the world’s top-ranked male players, Bobby Riggs. Dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” more than 90 million viewers from around the world tuned in to see the match. “I knew I had to play him. I knew the exposure would be extreme. I knew I had to win.” King said her strategy was simple, yet effective. “And that was to run him in five rallies as much as I could, just run him into the ground. That was my job. And it worked.” King said her victory that night wasn’t about tennis – it was about creating social change. “That was our one moment where we had focus and it was visual. It wasn’t reading something; it wasn’t talking about it. Let the racket do the talking.”

Over the course of her career, King took home a total of 39 Grand Slam titles. “Tennis was not just tennis,” King admitted to MAKERS. “It was really a platform to allow me to have a forum.” She used that platform to create the Women’s Tennis Association and, as president, successfully lobbied to have equal prize money offered to men and women at the U.S. Open. She also created the Women’s Sports Foundation to provide females with more access to sports. When Title IX was passed in 1972, just 15% of college athletes were women. According the Women’s Sports Foundation, females now make up 44% of NCAA athletes.

US First Lady Jill Biden and tennis legend Billie Jean King mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX at Capitol One Arena in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2022. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US First Lady Jill Biden and tennis legend Billie Jean King mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX at Capitol One Arena in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2022. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

“We can celebrate how far we have come and also take a hard long look at the work that lies ahead,” King said during her speech in June. “The primary beneficiaries of Title IX have been white suburban girls. Let’s use this milestone anniversary to reenergize our focus on strengthening and advancing equity and opportunities for all girls and women but especially those who have been left behind by the law, including girls of color, girls with disabilities, trans athletes and all LGBTQ+ youth. We have to look forward.”

The day after King’s speech, President Biden and the Department of Education proposed new amendments to expand Title IX’s protections for sexual discrimination victims and LGBTQI+ students. As expected, the new proposal has sparked debate and is likely to face lawsuits. But King says the skills she used on the tennis court are the same ones that can help shift mindsets. “I have to be nimble, I have to adjust, I have to think, I have to strategize. All the things you use in real life are right there.”