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When President Obama announced that the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Russia would include Billie Jean King, there was no need to explain who she is or the prestige she brings to her county. Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, defeated Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes in 1973, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Lots of great players popularized tennis. But Billie Jean King helped turn Wimbledon and the U.S. Open into heavyweight championships. The daughter of a Long Beach, Calif., fireman, she started playing in the 1950s, when tennis was regarded as a white-collar sport for white people wearing white clothes on country-club tennis courts.
But Billie Jean King told the Oakland Tribune in 1967, "I'd like to see tennis get out of its 'sissy' image and see some guy yell, 'Hit it, ya bum!' "
She was married to a man named Lawrence King and hadn't planned to be an activist for gay rights. But by the early 1970s, she began to admit to herself that she was interested in women. Her former secretary filed a lawsuit, asking for a share of her assets because they had been intimate. Billie Jean King says she lost millions of dollars in endorsements, and, she told The Times of London in 2007, the privacy to work out her own sexuality out of public view.
"It was very hard on me because I was outed," she said. "Fifty percent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13. I was in the other 50 percent."
She said she had tried to speak with her parents about her sexual orientation; but parents in her generation would say, "We're not talking about things like that." And then, she says, there were people who advised her that if her sexual orientation became known, it might destroy the women's professional tennis tour that she had done so much to build.
"I couldn't get a closet deep enough," she said.
So Billie Jean King will join a U.S. delegation to the Olympics with other great athletes, including Caitlin Cahow, the hockey player, and Brian Boitano, the former Olympic skater. Their presence may pointedly remind the host country that the athletes Russia would have been proud to win medals for them might feel insulted by the new Russian law making it illegal to have what it calls a "distorted understanding" that gay and heterosexual relations are "socially equivalent."
Billie Jean King is 70. She has seen tennis become a popular sport with boisterous stars, and gay identity evolve from quiet denial to acceptance and pride. Her presence in Russia may remind people that history can move, sometimes with extraordinary speed, and that people can change. Billie Jean King did, and now, she might change others.