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Presidential Honor for Billie Jean

Billie Jean King was awarded America's highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama.

Published August 12, 2009 09:02

Presidential Honor for Billie Jean
Billie Jean King, President Obama

WASHINGTON, DC, USA - During her playing career Billie Jean King reached the 'Round of 16' countless times, but on Wednesday that number took on special meaning for the tennis legend. In a ceremony at the White House, the founder of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and champion of gender equality was among 16 global luminaries to receive the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama.

America's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make an especially significant contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. As well as sports, this year's awardees were chosen for their work as 'agents of change' in fields ranging from arts and science to politics and public policy.

King, already the recipient of dozens of accolades for her exploits on and off-court, certainly fits the bill. While her defeat of Bobby Riggs in the famous Battle of the Sexes in Houston in 1973 remains the most viewed tennis match in history - and was a spectacular way to draw attention to her cause - her commitment to a fair deal for all regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation has often been played out far from the spotlight.

A year after the establishment of the WTA in 1973, King set up the Women's Sports Foundation to promote opportunities for female participation in sports. In the early 1980s she became the first woman commissioner in professional sports when she co-founded and led the World Team Tennis (WTT) League, and in 1998 founded the Billie Jean King Foundation, which supports projects in the areas of health, education and athletics. She also continues to serve as a board member for charities such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The platform for these and many other achievements was, of course, an extraordinary playing career. By the time King retired in 1983 - she remains the oldest player ever to win a singles title (Birmingham that year) at 39 years, seven months - she had won 67 Tour singles titles (including 12 Grand Slams) and 101 doubles titles, not counting those won before the advent of Open tennis in 1968. She had been ranked No.1 in the world at year's end five times and been in the Top 10 a total of 17 years (beginning in 1960).

King's fellow honorees in Washington on August 12 included anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court; groundbreaking black movie star and Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier; the late Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay publicly-elected official from a major US city (San Francisco); theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking; and Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland and a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," observed President Obama. "Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way."

Speaking with reference to Billie Jean, the President added: "We honor... what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone - including my two daughters - a chance to compete both on the court and in life."

Click here to read President Obama's full remarks.   

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