Looking Back at a Legend... Billie Jean King

Can it really be 35 years since Billie Jean King won the last of her six Wimbledon singles titles?

Published March 18, 2010 12:00

Looking Back at a Legend... Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King

Weeks at No.1: N/A (stints at No.1 pre-date computer ranking era)
Year-End No.1 Finishes (Open Era): 4...equal 4th (w/Davenport)
Tour Singles Titles (Open Era): 67…6th on all-time list
Tour Doubles Titles (Open Era): 101…4th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: 12...7th on all-time list
Career Match Win-Loss (Open Era): 695-155
Win-Loss Percentage: .818...9th on all-time list

Having purchased her first tennis racquet with money saved from odd jobs so she could take free lessons, 11-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt told her mom, Betty, "I am going to be No.1 in the world." Girlish bravado, but a hint at the force of nature King would become as a woman. Yes, she rose to the top of the game but more than that she became one of the most significant social figures of the 20th century, her impact as a champion of equality far transcending sport.

King first earned that No.1 ranking in 1966, the year her feisty, net-charging style earned the 22-year-old her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon. By that time she was Mrs Lawrence King, and part of a triumvirate of players who dominated the major titles in the second half of the 1960s, with Australia's Margaret Court and the Brazilian Maria Bueno. King already had more than titles on her mind, however.

As a girl, King had been given a taste of injustice when her tennis club refused to let her appear in a group picture because she was wearing shorts made by her mother instead of a dress. Later, the hypocrisy of under-the-table payments to supposed amateurs - 'shamateurism' - galled King, and when the Open Era was unleashed in 1968 she joined Rosie Casals, Ann Jones and Francoise Durr as one of the four original women professionals.

But despite this advance there was a huge disparity in prize money paid to men and women, and King was quickly at the forefront of the campaign to establish a standalone women's tour with fairer rewards.

View a gallery of King's extraordinary career and life.

In September 1970, King was ringleader when nine players broke away from the establishment, accepting $1 contracts from promoter Gladys Heldman at an event in Houston. The revolt led to the creation of the Virginia Slims Circuit, with King at the very eye of the storm. In 1971, the first full season of the new venture, she won 17 singles titles and became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single year. The achievement even warranted a congratulatory call from President Nixon.

The war was far from won, however: the new tour was divisive even among women players, and King walked a diplomatic minefield as she tried to get stars like Chris Evert, Virginia Wade and Evonne Goolagong on board.

By 1973 she had the clout to form the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), becoming its first president. But women's tennis was dealt a blow when top-ranked Court was thrashed by 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the so-called 'Mother's Day Massacre' exhibition. Compelled to restore the fledgling tour's honor, King agreed to take on former No.1 Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome. More than 30,000 fans saw the match live, with an estimated television audience of 90 million in some 35 countries.

King was acutely aware of the big picture: "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said of her 64 63 63 victory. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem." Indeed, far from being a disaster, the match was a spectacular way to draw attention to the cause, and later the same summer she helped secure equal prize money at the US Open.

Click here to see what King's peers have said about her.

Not for nothing would "pressure is a privilege" become one of King's best-known quotes. She was the queen of high-stakes tennis, the consummate big match player. "The champions play their weaknesses better," she once said. In a crunch she could find confidence even in her forehand down the line. 

During the first half of the seventies King was at the peak of her powers, capturing seven of the 10 Grand Slam singles tournaments played. Ending with Wimbledon in 1975, King won the last seven Grand Slam singles finals she contested. Across her career she was 11-2 in Grand Slam matches that went past 5-5 in the third set and 12-6 in major finals.

King's happiest hunting ground was, of course, Wimbledon, where she won a record (now shared with Martina Navratilova) 20 titles - six in singles, 10 in doubles and four mixed. She appeared in a total of 28 finals, including her 14-12, 11-9 loss to Court in 1970, which remains a classic. King won the triple crown at the All England Club twice, in 1967 and 1973, partnering Rosie Casals and Owen Davidson on both occasions.

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, one of six players in the Open Era to win all four majors) and 101 doubles titles, not counting those won before the advent of Open tennis in 1968 (the actual figure is more like 129). Only the Australian Open doubles title eluded her and she won a career Slam in mixed. She had been ranked No.1 in the world at year's end five times, been in the Top 10 a total of 17 years (beginning in 1960) and been a member of seven winning Fed Cup teams.

Click here for a comprehensive list of King's career record and off-court achievements and accolades.

King, who underwent the first of three major knee surgeries as early as 1968, was such a warhorse (on- and off-court) that by her mid twenties she referred to herself as the 'Old Lady' of tennis. It's anyone's guess how many titles she'd have won had she concentrated simply on playing.

If she did hurt her own record, there is overwhelming compensation in her broader legacy. The Women's Sports Foundation, set up by King in 1974 to promote opportunities for female participation in sports, is still going strong. Ditto the innovative, co-ed and fervently populist World TeamTennis League, which she helped found around the same time, serving as commissioner from 1984 until 2001. Founded in 1998, the Billie Jean King Foundation supports projects in the areas of health, education and athletics. And, galvanized by her own painfully public outing in the early 1980s, King remains a potent advocate of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community.

In August 2009, at a ceremony at the White House, King was among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom - America's highest civilian honor - from US President Barack Obama. The honorees were chosen for their work as 'agents of change', and she certainly passed muster.

Has King stepped on toes along the way? Surely. But if her convictions ever came across as militant, her push for equality regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation was never less than right. With immense drive and personal charisma, her pioneering feat has been to take people along for the ride.

Notable H2H (Open Era): vs. Austin 1-5, Casals 29-3, Court 2-5*, Evert 7-19, Goolagong Cawley 12-4, Morozova 1-2, Navratilova 5-9, Wade 22-9
* Career GS plus Open Era Tour matches only.

Click here to read fan tributes to Billie Jean and submit your own. 

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