Billie Jean King is one of the best and most influential tennis players of the 20th century. She has won 39 Grand Slam Titles in singles and doubles tennis, founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and has always been a strong advocate for gender equality. Specifically, she fought for equal pay and prize money for women’s tennis. King is mostly known for her famous tennis match against Bobby Riggs, dubbed “Battle of the Sexes. The match which King one, helped to validify the Women’s Tennis Association and became one of the biggest shows for gender equality.
King’s tennis career was derailed, almost destroyed, when she officially “came out” as bisexual, later identifying as lesbian. When her former lover Marilyn Bennet sued her for palimony after their intimate affair. Despite remaining married to her husband at the time, King lost millions of dollars in sponsorship and endorsements. Which delayed her plans for retirement from the sport until 1983 to pay her attorney fees. King divorced her husband in 1987 and entered a long-term relationship with her doubles partner, Llana Koss, which continues to this day. Koss and King serve as Godparents for her ex-husband and his wife’s children.
King has always stood up for what she believes in, especially equal pay and representation of women in tennis. Thanks to King’s efforts, in 1973 the US Open was the first major tournament to award equal prize money for men and women. She was the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in prize money.
In the Battle of the Sexes, she went up against tennis champion Bobby Riggs. Riggs, who challenged King to a match; as a self-proclaimed male chauvinist who believed that women were “inferior to men.” The Battle of the Sexes was the second match Riggs challenged with a woman, having previously beaten King’s fellow competitor, Margaret Court. This made the match a defining moment for King and her advocacy for women’s equality and representation. The Battle of the Sexes was recently dramatized in a movie of the same name, featuring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs.
In 2014, King founded the “Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative” which “is an ambitious and motivated endeavor whose sole focus is to move the needle on issues impacting diverse talent globally. We plan to ignite a transformation in the conversation through three primary pillars of leadership: LIFT through action and advocacy, LEARN through research and innovation, and LEAD through insight and empowerment.”
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award is awarded to a person “who has made a major impact on the world of sport during their lifetime” and awarded annually since 1996. King is the second women to win the award, with fellow tennis player and lesbian Martina Navratilova winning the award in 2003. King is the first American woman to win the award and the second American after Michael Phelps.
Part of her speech upon accepting the award, King shared a powerful message…
“We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and we all have an opportunity to share our lives, our experiences and our vision for the future. Each of us is an influencer, and to all the athletes who truly have a platform, let’s continue to use the power of our voices and our actions to inspire others.”
By Dirk Smith