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Billie Jean King was a champion tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s who helped push forth women's equality both on the court and off it.

Just from her accomplishments, she was a busy person. She: (1) won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and including doubles play, won Wimbledon 20 times; (2) defeated male player Bobby Riggs in a 1972 Battle of the Sexes, helping prove the notion that women could be athletes; (3) was pivotal in starting the professional Women's Tennis Assocation (WTA), breaking away from the pseudo-amateur USLTA; and (4) was a defendant in a very public trial brought on by a former female lover, bringing the notion of homosexuality to the forefront.

Beyond that, she helped found World Team Tennis and the Women's Sports Foundation, was a coach for American Olympic and Federation Cup teams, and also works as a television commentator.

Like, I said, a busy person.


She was born in 1943 to a loving middle class family in Long Beach, California. Billie Jean Moffitt, as she was then, had always loved sports and played with her brother as often as she could. (Her brother, Randy Moffitt, was a San Francisco Giants pitcher in the 1970s.)

This despite the fact that she was kinda chubby and wore thick glasses — not exactly the model of an athlete. Even worse, however, she was a girl, and any foray into athletic endeavors would require bucking the system.

When she was in high school at Long Beach Poly, she wanted to play in a tournament in nearby Santa Monica, but her principal initially refused to sign, arguing, "What for?" As a college student at Los Angeles State, she didn't receive an athletic scholarship even though she had won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1961 as a 17-year-old.

The system, you see, had no reason to change. The USLTA was a paternalistic monopoly, kind of like the NCAA today. Any player who wanted to play in any tournament — say, the U.S. Open — had to be invited by the USLTA. The same was true for other countries, and each national organization respected the wishes of its neighbors.

Since the USLTA controlled access to the tournaments, they also could control wages. Tennis players were not professional when Billie Jean came up; they were "shamateur" — nominally amateur, but in fact paid a few hundred dollars under the table.

That would soon change.


Billie Jean Moffitt married Larry King (not the journalist) in 1965, and at this time, she became a dominant force in women's tennis. Margaret Court was her best rival; Court was stronger and taller but not as quick. As unexceptional as King looked, she was surprisingly nimble and was comfortable in all phases of her game. Similar perhaps to Martina Hingis, but a better server, plus much less of a head case.

But this whole shamateur thing ticked her off. She talked about breaking away from the USLTA throughout the latter half of the 1960s, but most of the other female players were cautious and did not want to risk their short careers. In a way, they had a point; Billie Jean King was good enough to make a living on any circuit, but could Rosie Casals?

Nevertheless, in 1970 King and eight other women's players founded the Virginia Slims Circuit. Three years later, King spearheaded the formation of the Women's Tennis Association, a union without the u-word, with a main goal being to earn equal prize money in Grand Slam events as male players did. (That quest would take decades longer.)

The early years of the Virginia Slims and the WTA were difficult; not many top players chose to follow King at first, notably Court and Chris Evert. This put King under added pressure to remain a top player, because if she didn't, her organizations could very well fold.

Thankfully, King continued to win well into the 1970s, and the WTA and the renamed WTA Tour are dominant today.


It started with Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court. Riggs was, honestly, a promoter who happened to be a retired former No. 1 player, and he thought a match against a top woman would really create some interest.

So in 1973 he challenged Court, who was pretty indifferent to the whole thing. Nevertheless, Court accepted, and Riggs smoked her in two sets. Then Riggs looked around for another victim, and he found King.

Billie Jean King thought the whole thing was pretty stupid. But since Court had lost — in rather embarrassing fashion — King felt a need to stand up for her gender. What she got was a circus.

The match took place in September of 1973 in the Houston Astrodome, a large indoor arena with a semitransparent tiled ceiling that was awful for tennis.

Sports Illustrated said the atmosphere leading up to the match "took on all the earmarks of a fighter's training camp." Billie and her entourage would take her turn in the practice bubble — erected in the Astrodome parking lot — and then Bobby and his crew of crazies would take his turn.

At the time, Riggs was selling vitamins. He explained that all his special vitamin doses were what allowed him to keep up with younger players. (His entourage included a pseudo-pharmacist.) He also smugly called himself a male chauvinist.

The parallels between the Battle of the Sexes and the 1975 George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight (aka, The Rumble in the Jungle) are quite interesting. Both pitted older, media-savvy loudmouths against younger players in their prime who did not benefit from kind press coverage. Both events took place in absolutely ridiculous locations.

The difference was that Ali beat Foreman. Riggs sure as hell didn't beat King.

Unlike Court, King took the match seriously, practicing hundreds of lobs in the week before. Riggs had lobbed Court to death, and King was worried about picking out the tennis ball against the strange Astrodome ceiling. During the match, she didn't miss a single one.

Riggs planned to use his arsenal of tricky spin shots as well, but in King, he faced an opponent well schooled in those tactics as well. This was no Margaret Court, who was used to dominating women with her strength and reach and could not call on another facet of her game against Riggs. This was King, who was faster and more accurate than Riggs.

Riggs quickly became unglued. He lost the first set, 6-4, when he double faulted at set point. King won the last two sets 6-3, though they weren't really that close.

The effect was a shock in the United States. Around 40 million people watched the match, and tales abound of secretaries forcing their bosses to make coffee the next morning. It's hard to imagine how pervasive the stereotypes of female incapabilities were back then; for instance, many in the sports community felt that women were too fragile to run in marathons.

Both King and Riggs took the result with good sportsmanship. The pair later appeared in a table tennis gag on the television show "The Odd Couple." As the years went on, Riggs and King became friends, and they traded telephone calls until Riggs' death in 1996.


One footnote to the Riggs match: Billie Jean King was bombarded with interview requests leading up to the match. Her traveling secretary, Marilyn Barnett, had to physically shield her at times.

Though the press did not know it at the time, Barnett was more than just a secretary and a (former) hairdresser. She and King were lovers for about a year, as Billie Jean and her husband were busy with their respective careers and had little time for each other.

Unfortunately for Billie Jean King, Barnett would prove to be a total nutcase. To make matters worse, King wrote her more than a few love letters.

Near the end of the 1970s, King tried to get rid of Barnett. They hadn't dated in a long while, but Barnett still provided secretary duties — in a sense. According to King, she got off on controlling access to Billie Jean, not giving messages to her and chiding her when she went home with her husband.

Finally, the Kings told Barnett to get the hell away from them. Barnett's response was essentially blackmail — that she'd hand over the letters if King paid her handsomely. King's response, after conferring with her husband and advisers, was to come public and admit to the infidelity.

Here's a lesson for Bill Clinton and the Enron people and everyone else who tries to extend lies long past their shelf date: It's always better to come clean. Billie Jean King came clean, and though the short term impact on her endorsement contracts was devastating, most of the country supported her. Barnett was left with a ridiculous lawsuit in which she had to prove that vague statements in love letters entitled her to a fat wad of money. (The Kings had already paid her handsomely.) Needless to say, Barnett lost.

King's marriage could not be saved, however, but she remains good friends with her ex-husband. She now considers herself to be more lesbian than bisexual.


King is long past her playing days, but she remains busy. She continues to promote World Team Tennis, though that circuit is decidedly minor league, and she serves as a television commentator and is still active with the Women's Sports Foundation.

In 1998, there was another "Battle of the Sexes." Sisters Venus Williams and Serena Williams took turns playing against the men's No. 203, Karten Braasch on a side court at the Australian Open. Braasch beat the crap out of them, but no one paid attention. Women's tennis remains as popular as ever.

Sources:
King's 1982 autobiography, "Billie Jean," written with Frank Deford
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/womens/features/1998/battle/battle.html (Good SI recap of Riggs match)
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/1998/deford/0916/index.html
http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m1589/n765/20979892/p1/article.jhtml?term=
http://www.sacbee.com/static/archive/news/projects/people_of_century/sports/king.html
http://www.wtatour.com/thewtatour/stories/tourstory.asp -- WTA history
http://www.worldteamtennis.com/about/billie.asp -- king bio
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,6903,543962,00.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/m/moffira01.shtml (Randy Moffitt's stats)

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