Billie Jean King on her journey for equal rights in tennis, life: ‘No one ever has it easy’

Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY
·11 min read

Billie Jean King is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we've assembled a list of 100 women who've made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all at usatoday.com/WomenoftheCentury.

Billie Jean King knew Bobby Riggs was tired. She had been running him all over the court.

It was Sept. 20, 1973, and this was the "Battle of the Sexes," a tennis match that was about far more than tennis. It was about proving the value of women tennis players, who had been fighting for equal pay and opportunities.

The frenzied buildup – the interviews, the speculation, the hype – had also turned it into a symbolic match about the value of women, period. Ninety million people tuned in worldwide to watch self-described male chauvinist Riggs play equal-rights advocate King in the Houston Astrodome.

Before the match, he gave her a Sugar Daddy sucker. She gave him a pig. King did not want to set back women's sports and women's rights. She had to win.

They were playing best of five sets. She was up two and it was match point in the third. She had already hit a match point into the net. This time, she aimed high so it would surely go over and he'd have to try to hit it. But he was so tired, his return went into the net. She'd won.

He jumped over the net to shake her hand and said, "I really underestimated you."

Men had done that before.

When she asked for women to get the same prize money as men on the professional tour, the men in charge said no, you're getting what you deserve. So King walked. She and the other "Original Nine" women's players formed their own circuit (the Virginia Slims Tour).

King was ranked No. 1 in the world six times over her tennis career, with 39 Grand Slam titles, 20 of them at Wimbledon.

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Question: Where did that competitive spirit come from? Is it something you're born with or something you learn?

Billie Jean King: Many people are physically very great athletes, but what separates the best is the emotional and mental. They'll always say mental, but it's not mental. Mental is what you think. Emotional is what you think when the going gets tough.

When you're standing there and you have to win this point, you have to size it up. Am I going to serve topspin, slice? Am I going to serve at them? Am I going to serve wide? You have to think all the things in a nanosecond, and then you have to believe the ball's going in, and you have to believe in yourself, and you just have to picture it going in.

At 7 years old, I told my mom I was going to do something great with my life. I was drying the dishes. And she goes, "That's nice."

(I said:) "Mom, I'm telling you." I just could feel it. "I'm just going to do something great with my life."

You knew after your first free lesson at the park that tennis was your calling.

I played all team sports, basketball, football, volleyball. I played everything, but I'd never heard of tennis. So in fifth grade, Susan Williams was sitting next to me and says, "Do you want to play tennis?" And I said: "What's tennis? What do you do?" And she said, "You get to run, jump, and hit a ball." I said: "Oh, those are my three favorite things in sports."

My very first time I went out to play and get my first instruction, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

My mom came to get me and I said: "Mommy, Mommy, I'm so excited. I know what I'm going to do with my life." Of course, now we'd probably say destiny or whatever. And she says: "That's nice. You've got homework."

She always kept all of us grounded, which is good. Because if you get too high or too low, it's not good.

And that's why I push for strong recreation departments, because I know I'm a product of it.

Billie Jean King plays former champion Maria Bueno of Brazil during the women's singles quarter finals match at Wimbledon in 1963.
Billie Jean King plays former champion Maria Bueno of Brazil during the women's singles quarter finals match at Wimbledon in 1963.

Who did you look up to?

I loved history. I read every history book I could on tennis. I knew every champion at Wimbledon. I knew every doubles and mixed (doubles) champions at that time.

If you fast-forward to 13, I got to see Althea Gibson play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, which is kind of the Mecca of the Southern California tennis world where all our big tournaments were played. I saw Althea Gibson and she was No. 1 in the world at the time. She's the first Black player ever to win a major. If you can see it, you can be it. I knew now what No. 1 of the world looked like. That changed my whole world.

I really know that I stand on the shoulders of others.

Billie Jean King holds up the championship trophy after defeating Chris Evert in the Wimbledon women's singles final in 1973. This was King's fifth time winning Wimbledon.
Billie Jean King holds up the championship trophy after defeating Chris Evert in the Wimbledon women's singles final in 1973. This was King's fifth time winning Wimbledon.

You saw the inequities in tennis right away.

When I was 13, I was at the Los Angeles Tennis Club again. Everyone wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls. And everybody who played, this is right before I saw Althea, was white. Everybody's white. And I asked myself at 13: "Where is everybody else? Where is everybody else?" And that was my epiphany. And that's when I made a promise to champion equality the rest of my life.

I knew already as a girl, I was a second-class citizen, but I also knew as a white girl, I had an advantage over my sisters of color. So I knew I had to be No. 1; maybe someone will listen.

When you first realized the disparity of pay on the tennis circuit, you created your own tournament. World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman found a sponsor. That was brave.

When tennis became professional in '68, my former husband kept saying: "When it goes professional, the men will try to get rid of you. They don't want you around. They want all the money that's available." And I said, "No, they're my friends."

The "Battle of the Sexes" was one of many fights for equality Billie Jean King had on and off the tennis court.
The "Battle of the Sexes" was one of many fights for equality Billie Jean King had on and off the tennis court.

And he goes, "Billie, the old-boy network will not stand for it." He was right. He was totally right. And I was totally wrong.

I was giving the benefit of the doubt to the men that I knew and cared about. And they did not come through. It was terrible. They all said, "Go home, take care of your husband" or that "The money belongs to us. Nobody will want to see you guys play anyway."

The night of (the "Original Nine" players) signing a $1 contract with Gladys Heldman was the birth of women's professional tennis the way you know it today.

The reason Serena Williams has $92 million in prize money and a lot more off the court is because of that moment in time, when we were willing to take a chance. If we never get to play Wimbledon, U.S. Open or any tournament again, we did not care. We had had it. Some of the women were hesitant. I kept saying, "We have bupkis, we have bupkis. I'm telling you we have nothing, so we have nothing to lose."

I get too much credit. We did it as a team. And today it is the reason women are making money and everybody has a pathway.

You've talked about the difference between men and women and feeling "ready" to do something, that women feel like they're not ready even if they are, and men will more often say they're ready even if they aren't.

Yeah. I hate the way we're socialized. Women are taught not to have any self-confidence. They're always supposed to be the support act.

You know what people always do, they always think a woman does something just for women. They'll say to me, "Thanks for what you did for women's tennis." I fought for pro tennis. In team tennis (World TeamTennis), we have equal men and women. I've always fought for everyone.

When a woman does something, she doesn't just do it for women. She does it for everyone, just like a guy. And until we start thinking like that as a country, we are never going to elect a woman president. Because women lead everyone if she's a president.

With all the work you've done, especially with LGBTQ issues, there may have been times when you thought it was going nowhere. There may be others out there who feel hopeless.

Billie Jean King, at the 2018 New York City Pride March, says rather than looking at the past, she looks ahead to the ongoing efforts for equal rights.
Billie Jean King, at the 2018 New York City Pride March, says rather than looking at the past, she looks ahead to the ongoing efforts for equal rights.

I have a long, long journey. I was outed in '81. I lost everything overnight. That wouldn't happen today. Today I'd be celebrated.

And I think the biggest hurt is that I couldn't do things on my own terms. I couldn't be my authentic self on my own terms, like being private, working through this, trying to figure out who I am, and to have it so public was really, really hard.

It took probably 20 years to recover. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin until I was 51. I don't want anyone to have that journey. And my journey is probably much easier than the ones that came before me.

Tennis players today, if they come out, it's like, "OK." And they still get their endorsements. They might even get more endorsements because of it. So yes, there is progress. But I must admit that it was very traumatic. And when I go back there in my mind, it becomes very much a trauma. I can still feel the feelings. I try not to go there too much because it's more important what we do now in the future.

Everyone you ever talked to, if you listened to their story, no one ever has it easy.

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How do you overcome adversity?

For me, it's my faith, my friends, having enough courage to go to therapy. I'm huge on visualization. That's all I do. When I play tennis, I visualize everything. I visualize my goals, my 30,000-foot goal. That's what I'm best at.

Another thing I think is really important, and I've done this most of my life, is don't take things personally, because it's about the person who said it, it's not about you. And I think that's helped me.

Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Just let people be. They're human. Just be forgiving. Just keep moving. Life's too short. There's so much to do and accomplish before I'm out of here.

What's your definition of courage?

I think it's having the courage to do the right thing even though it's not popular. Because you know when somebody's popular, you're going: "I probably won't say anything. Because they're going to get mad at me or I don't fit. Or that's not what most people think."

You don't really know about a person's character until the going gets tough and then their character is revealed. You have to ask yourself, when it gets down to it, "Am I doing the right thing?"

Nicole Carroll is editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billie Jean King on equal pay for women in tennis: We did it as a team