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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Famous Women- Billie Jean King

Nov 15, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

In the realm of sports, and specifically women’s tennis, there is one name that seemed to stand out until Venus and Serena Williams started to emerge: Billie Jean King.  Where was she born, and educated?

Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach,California. She came from a family that excelled in the realm of sports. Her father, for example, had a tryout with a team in the National Basketball Association before deciding on a career as a firefighter, and her younger brother Randy pitched on the major league level for three different baseball teams over a 12-year career. Billie Jean initially gravitated towards baseball and softball, playing shortstop on a city championship team at the age of 10.

She attended an elementary school in Long Beach, and then went to Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Upon graduation, she enrolled at California State University. After her junior year, she decided to leave college to concentrate on her tennis career.

2. How did she first get involved in tennis?

According to many accounts, a conversation with her parents in 1954 put her on the path towards tennis stardom. At that time, Billie Jean recognized that softball offered her only a limited opportunity for success in the sports world. Accordingly, she asked her parents about other sports that she could try. During the talk, her father suggested that she could give tennis a try, and Billie Jean found the possibility intriguing. As it turned out, she had a friend that belonged to a local country club, and she agreed to take Billie Jean there to hit balls.

From the moment that she stepped onto the court, Billie Jean knew that she had found her true passion. Her parents could not afford a membership at the country club, and as a result Billie Jean turned to the public courts in the city of Long Beach to learn the game. Fortunately, a professional tennis player named Clyde Walker gave free lessons at that time, and Billie Jean quickly blossomed under his tutelage.

At the age of 15, she gave notice of her immense talent when she won the Southern California tennis championship in her age group. Three years later, she teamed with Karen Hantze Susman to win the women’s doubles championship at Wimbledon, becoming the youngest female at the time to achieve that level of success.

In 1966, she won the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. Ayear later she won the singles championship both at Wimbledon and at the US Open. 1968 saw her win the singles championship for the third time at Wimbledon, and for the first time at the US Open. 1972 saw her win the singles championship at the French open, the US open, and Wimbledon.

3. Having turned professional during the 1960s, Billie Jean joined a women’s professional tour in 1970, and three years later she organized the Women’s Tennis Association. This organization gave her the clout to pressure the organizers of the US Open to give equal prize money to the men and women that competed there—a first in the history of professional sports. Her match with Bobby Riggs was one of those sensational media circus kinds of things. How did all that come about? (I believe there is currently a movie about that event).

Born in 1918, Bobby Riggs had become an outstanding tennis player by the time he turned 21. Indeed, at that age he won the men’s singles championship at Wimbledon and at the US Open. Two years later, he won a second US Open men’s singles championship. After serving in the US Navy during the Second World War,he turned professional, which at the time disqualified him from competing at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Instead, he played against other professionals, achieving notably success well into his thirties. After he retired from professional tennis,Riggs acquired a reputation as a gambler and a hustler. Perhaps because of this, he came up with a plan to make himself a great deal of money through a hustle involving tennis. Riggs began to claim that women played an inferior brand of tennis, and boasted that at the age of 55 he could beat even the very best female tennis player in the world.

Accordingly, he issued a challenge to Billie Jean (who had married a man named Larry King in 1965) to a match. Believing that nothing good could come from such a match, she declined. Riggs then turned his attention to Margaret Court, who in 1973 held the number one ranking among female tennis players. She accepted the challenge, and Riggs decisively defeated her in May of 1973.

At that point, Billie Jean decided that she had to play Riggs to uphold the honor of women’s tennis. The two played each other in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973 for a purse of $100,000. They battled on even terms for much of the first set, but King eventually prevailed 6-4. She then took the next two sets by identical 6-3 margins, and won the match.

In 2017, a movie starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs focused on this match. Since the press corps in 1973 had dubbed the contest “The Battle of the Sexes,’ Hollywood used that term as the title of the movie.   

4. Apparently she was later involved in Philadelphia Freedom, a type of women’s tennis league—or am I off on the details?

In 1974, Billie Jean King and three other individuals created anew league: World Team Tennis. This organization originally consisted of 16teams, and featured men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles matches. King became a member of a team based in Philadelphia, known as the Freedom.

Elton John, an admirer of King, later wrote a song by that name in honor of her. World Team Tennis still exists to this day—a tribute to her vision and early leadership.

5. What have I failed to ask about this superb female athlete?

Although she married Larry King in 1965, Billie Jean developed a relationship with her secretary a few years later. This remained a secret until1981, when her secretary brought a suit against her for support in a type of case known as “Palimony.” This suit made it clear that Billie Jean King had bisexual tendencies, and the publicity surrounding that fact cost her most of her endorsement opportunities. At the time, she tried to salvage her financial opportunities by referring to her relationship with her secretary as “a fling.”

Since then, she has publicly embraced her sexual orientation, and has become a champion of the struggle of homosexuals and bi-sexuals to have their rights recognized.

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