Throughout my teenage years, I had a morning ritual: Every day, I affixed to my school uniform a Billie Jean King button, a dinner-plate-sized object I’d obtained from a company that advertised in the back of New Musical Express. Just as North Koreans clip on their Kim Il-Sung lapel pins in honor of the great leader, I pledged my allegiance to BJK.
My devotion wobbled on a few occasions—when she suggested in one of her autobiographies that we Brits were destined for tennis mediocrity because our dependency on the welfare state rendered us unsuited to the individualistic demands of the sport; or when she put me through months of misery by naming Atlas Shrugged as her favorite book. But this was a crush that endured long after my other adolescent passions faded.
On Monday night, the U.S. Tennis Association finally acknowledged its own longstanding debt to King, renaming in her honor its national headquarters, the home of the U.S. Open. In days past, given King’s bitter feuds with the USTA, such a gesture would’ve been unimaginable. Disgusted with the piddling pay and scant respect the organization awarded the women’s game, King was instrumental in setting up the rival Virginia Slims circuit, unsanctioned by the national body. On Monday, she acknowledged, “I’m one of the suits now.” She seemed embarrassed by the transformation, but it was the USTA that should have been uncomfortable: Why did it take them so long to recognize the sport’s greatest contributor?
Certainly, King was an outstanding athlete. And growing up in England, watching her play on grass, the surface best suited to her inspired serve-and-volley game, I got to see her at her best. But in leading the fight for equal pay for women in tennis, she was also one of the most potent feminist symbols of the 1970s: A 1975 poll in Seventeen magazine named her the most admired woman in the world! Unlike most sports personalities, she had one. In her prime, King had an almost scary charisma and an unparalleled way with grand gestures: A hammy appeal to the gods would be answered by a clap of thunder, a cry for help would result in a bird swooping low over the court. She could also be incredibly goofy. In TV interviews, her sudden leaps from earnest to weird almost suggest Tourette’s syndrome. (To see what I mean, check out the speech she makes at the end of this short YouTube video.)
The foundation of Billie Jean’s activism was one 1954 photograph. The daughter of a firefighter and a homemaker from Long Beach, Calif., King famously did odd jobs to earn $8 to buy a tennis racket, and she learned the game via free lessons in public parks. In her first tournament, at the swank Los Angeles Tennis Club, she was yanked out of a commemorative photograph by the president of the Southern California Lawn Tennis Association because her homemade shorts outfit didn’t meet the dress code. Almost two decades later, King told Grace Lichtenstein, author of A Long Way Baby: Behind the Scenes in Women’s Pro Tennis, “Ever since that day when I was eleven years old and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis skirt, I knew I wanted to change the sport.”
And did she ever. She was the driving force behind—and, always, the spokeswoman for—every major challenge to the tennis establishment of the past 30 years: the move from “shamamateur” tennis, when players were paid under-the-table, to the open era; the founding of a women’s tour and player’s union, the Women’s Tennis Association; the struggle for decent prize money for women; the establishment of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the fight for federal law Title IX. And, of course, in September 1973, she made tennis America’s most popular sport—albeit for one night only—when she beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” King’s sole failure has been World TeamTennis, a rowdy gender-balanced team event intended as an antidote to the hushed, clubby world of the singles game. Sounds great, but despite decades of single-minded effort, it has never caught on.
Perhaps Billie Jean was a ringleader because she craved the collegiality of team sports. Softball was her first love, and for all her passion for tennis, she envied her brother, Randy Moffitt, who played major league baseball for 12 seasons. Despite her blue-collar roots, she felt most comfortable and enjoyed her greatest success at that stuffy bastion of tradition, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, better known as Wimbledon. She won the women’s doubles event the first time she entered, at 17, and reached the semifinals in her final run at the singles crown at 39—winning a total of 20 titles there. Mostly, the grass just suited her game. But she was also too mentally tough to be thrown off by all the strawberries-and-cream silliness
King always had a contradictory ability to please. She appealed to a duffer like me because she was short, didn’t look like an athlete, and wore glasses; to my sporty friends she was a jock’s jock. At 62, she is whip-smart and witty and yet apparently feels no embarrassment about listing “reading self-improvement books” as one of her hobbies and naming the “four disciplines in The Road Less Traveled” as her philosophy of life. She is more than outspoken—she was every tennis reporter’s favorite source. Yet until the last couple of years she remained eerily silent about being a lesbian (despite being forced out of the closet, and thus losing a fortune in endorsements, by a creepy jilted lover in 1981). She has been involved with former tennis player Ilana Kloss for more than 20 years but stayed married to college sweetheart Larry King for the first eight years of the Kloss relationship.
At Monday night’s ceremony, sports broadcaster Mary Carillo, who once played World TeamTennis with the honoree, expressed the essence of King’s equal-opportunity agenda: “She’s for the rich, the poor, black, white, straight, gay, she wants equality for everyone. She’s not just a great tennis player and a women’s libber, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind.” For this photo op, Billie Jean got to pick out her own outfit. Her suit was a businesslike black two-piece, the sartorial opposite of a tennis ensemble. In other words, the perfect fit.