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Pioneer Billie Jean King Moved The Baseline For Women's Tennis

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Women's tennis champion Billie Jean King is best remembered for her 1973 exhibition match, known as "The Battle of the Sexes," with self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. But King also had a remarkable career, both as a tennis player and a trailblazer for women: She won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them for singles, and she led an uprising of underpaid female players to demand fairer treatment and compensation in professional tennis.

Those subjects, as well as King's being painfully outed as gay in 1981, are the subjects of an American Masters documentary that aired this week on PBS stations and is also available to view online.

At 69, King is still active in the game as both a recreational player and an owner in World Team Tennis. She tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about the challenges of being a female player in the '60s and '70s.


Interview Highlights

On how she prepared for a match

I used to think about everything that could go wrong and then try to picture myself, or how I would react to it or how I would respond to it. ... So I always thought about the wind; I thought about the sun; I thought about line calls; I thought about rain, if we had to wait, things that were probably out of my control, and how I would respond to them.

I would think about how I wanted to act. Like they teach in acting, "act as if ..." — it's the same thing in sports. Do you stand up straight? Do you have your body language speaking in a confident way? Because 75 percent of the time when you're on the court, you're actually not hitting a ball. And I think that's where the champions come through. So I would visualize all these different possibilities.

On the challenges of being a female player in the '60s and '70s

First we had the challenge of [there being no] professional tennis [league for women] and then we had this [pay] disparity. But more importantly, the men who owned the tournaments, who ran the tournaments, started to drop the women's events entirely. Most of the places, when they did have us play [and] included us, they gave us about a 12- or 11-to-1 ratio of prize money.

On finally deciding to play against Bobby Riggs, and winning

I declined [to play Bobby Riggs] for a couple of years because we had just started [the Women's Tennis Association] and I was getting no sleep, working so hard. You have to visualize: You're going to start a tour, there's no infrastructure. Who is going to own tournaments? Who are we going to get to take the financial risk of owning a tournament? So all of my time was spent trying to get people to do a tournament in different cities. ... I was learning marketing, entrepreneurship ... and [the media were] nonstop.

Remember Title IX had just passed ... which was very important to me that that passed. It ended up being one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century, particularly for women at the time. ... I really didn't want [Title IX] to be weakened. I thought with Margaret [Court] losing [against Bobby Riggs in the first 'Battle of the Sexes'], it would be a good chance for some of the people to start jumping on the bandwagon to weaken Title IX, hurt our tour, to hurt women's sports, the women's movement. ... As soon as I found out [Margaret had lost] ... I knew I definitely was going to play Bobby Riggs. I did not have a choice.

[Riggs] was 55. He was as old as my father [at the time]. For me to beat him meant absolutely nothing athletically. Nothing. But it's what it represented. When Margaret lost, I didn't know if I was going to beat him. I thought she would kill him as far as winning, and she didn't. ... You never underestimate your opponent.

On being remembered for "The Battle of the Sexes" instead of her Wimbledon titles

I knew that was going to happen, actually, at the time. Because you could tell it was the most exposure I was ever going to get in my life. Every day I leave the apartment in New York City, where I live, I know someone is probably going to bring up that match. And every day, if I'm out in public, since that match in 1973, I always get one or more people coming up to talk to me about it. Most people, if they're old enough to have seen it, remember exactly where they were that day, and they tell me their story.

On being outed as gay by her assistant

I was paralyzed and I was trying to figure things out. I was starting to get worried about — I had this affair with Marilyn Barnett. I was starting to worry about it. She was my assistant. It was a difficult time for me and I didn't know what to do, really. I was lost.

It was really different back in the '70s than it is now. It was different when I was outed in '81. It just wasn't the same as it is now.

I started to have long-term sponsorship deals for the first time, like lifetime deals, and in sports that's huge. ... We didn't make the big bucks. I was finally going to be able to cash in, just for me, to finally make some really good money. ... I lost them all overnight and I had to start over, basically.

On women's tennis today

I wish I could hit like they do, that's for sure. I think it's fantastic what's available to the women and to the men. The men still have more opportunities, but the majors are equal prize money, which I think is wonderful. This is actually the 40th year of equal prize money at the U.S. Open and they were the first. It took us 34 more years, until 2007, to have all four majors [have] equal prize money.

But the tennis today, I'm a big believer in every generation gets better. I think Serena Williams will be, if she continues on the road she's on now, the greatest player ever to have lived in women's tennis. Her serve is absolutely beautiful.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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