By Naomi “Bez” Zebro
Billie Jean King is known for many things: as a celebrity, a lesbian and an LGBTQ+ advocate. She is perhaps most well known for her tennis prowess and could be considered by many as an absolute legendary figure on that alone, but she is so much more.
From her earliest playing days King was a winner. She entered the Grand Slam in 1959 while only 15 years old. Although she lost there, she kept on going and by age 17 she became one of the youngest doubles winners. But even as she stacked up victories, getting both minor and major titles to her name, her most infamous challenge was yet to come.
In 1973 King won the infamous “Battle of the Sexes,” a match staged by well-known tennis hustler Bobby Riggs who proclaimed women’s tennis so inferior that even an older player like he could beat any female contenders. When he defeated tennis ace Margaret Court, King proved him wrong in a worldwide televised event that was more spectacle than tennis match.
What made “Battle of the Sexes” great was that it was more than a simple tennis game – it was based on Riggs’ challenge that proclaimed female sports to be totally inferior. King proved him wrong by winning the match. She also introduced tennis to an audience of millions while proving that women’s tennis was able to match the men’s game. To quote ESPN’s headline, “Billie Jean won for all women.”
Not only did King win for all women, she was also an activist for gender equality in the tennis profession, fighting for both male and female players to be paid the same amount. As part of this campaign, she and nine other professional players founded the Virginia Slims Circuit, which later became the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour.
As a powerhouse tennis player, King certainly smashed through gender expectations and taught people that women athletes are just as powerful as their male counterparts. But she has also smashed through the expectations of her sexuality, coming out as a lesbian in public although this was not a voluntary act at the time.
King was forced to come out due to a 1981 palimony lawsuit filed by her female lover while she was married to her husband, Larry. And although they’ve talked about marriage, King and Ilana Kloss, former tennis player and current commissioner of World Team Tennis, have now been a couple for 40 years.
In 1987 King was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and in 2006 the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, home of the U.S. Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, making her the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor.
Her latest professional tennis honor was just announced by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). For King’s foundational work in equality and social justice, the Fed Cup is changing its name to the Billie Jean King Cup, once again making her the first woman to receive such an honor. This rebranding follows on the heels of bringing prize money in line with the men’s Davis Cup and coincides with King’s pioneering effort of 50 years ago to launch a women’s pro tennis circuit.