Billie Jean King – A champion of tennis and equality

Without Billie Jean King women’s tennis wouldn’t be as we know it today.

Throughout her career Billie has been a vocal lead in gender equality and fight for equality for LGBTQ+ people.

Billie founded the WTA in 1973 and continually pushed for equality whilst being a phenomenal competitor on court.

129 titles (67 in Open Era)
12 Grand Slam singles titles
16 Grand Slam doubles titles
11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles
8 Fed Cup titles

To win a few Grand Slam titles is a magnificent achievement but to win 39 across the competitions is quite incredible and 20 of those were at Wimbledon.

Billie Jean King at Wimbledon

20 titles at Wimbledon is matched by Martina Navratilova but no one has ever got to 21 and will that ever happen?

6 single titles, 10 doubles titles and 4 mixed doubles title between 1961 and 1979.

Not only did she win emphatically as a world number one with over 800 career wins but won a match in 1973 dubbed as the “Battle of the Sexes”

Bobby Riggs was a top player in the 30’s and 40’s and said even at his age of 55 that women’s tennis was so inferior to the men’s game. He challenged Margaret Court and won 6-1 6-2 and then Billie Jean King accepted the request to play.

September 20th, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome over 30,000 came, it was streamed to 90 million people in 37 countries with $100,000 on the line but it wasn’t about that.

Billie was 29 at the time and Bobby 55 and Billie won 6-4 6-3 6-3 and in her own words after said:

 “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem,”

“To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

The difference Billie has made for women’s tennis and opened many peoples eyes into equality is priceless.

Billie got married to Larry King 1965 and was completely in love with him but realised she liked women as well. In 1971 she had a relationship with her secretary which came out in May 1981 in a law suit filled by her secretary and became the first major professional female to come out. Billie felt she couldn’t admit the full extend of the relationship and called it a fling and a mistake and remained married to Larry.

In an interview in 2007 with the Sunday Times, Billie Jean spoke about concealing her sexuality for many years:

I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic and I was in the closet. As well as that, I had people tell me that if I talked about what I was going through, it would be the end of the women’s tour. I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. One of my big goals was always to be honest with my parents and I couldn’t be for a long time. I tried to bring up the subject but felt I couldn’t. My mother would say, “We’re not talking about things like that”, and I was pretty easily stopped because I was reluctant anyway. I ended up with an eating disorder that came from trying to numb myself from my feelings. I needed to surrender far sooner than I did. At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn’t have regrets any more.

Billie and Larry’s marriage ended in 1987 after Billie fell in love with her doubles partner Ilana Kloss. They remained on good terms and Billie was named as godmother to Larry’s son from a future marriage.

Billie and Ilana now live together in Chicago and New York.

Billie’s journey was a tough one, especially being in the public eye but her story resinates with people all over the world and showing you can be yourself and be happy!

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