Happy Birthday, Billie Jean!
Published November 22, 2010 12:00
It was 67 years ago on Monday that one of the most important female figures to ever play tennis was born in Long Beach, California.
Billie Jean King, holder of 12 Grand Slam singles titles and champion of women's rights, celebrated her birthday this week. When she came into the world back on November 22, 1943, nobody knew just how influential and talented an athlete she would become. But the girl who practiced her craft on the public courts of Long Beach would grow up to play a hugely instrumental role in the future of women's tennis.
King was 17 when she won her first major, the Wimbledon doubles crown alongside Karen Hantze Susman in 1961. She would go on to tally 38 more, totaling 12 singles, 16 doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles. In 1973, she held all three Wimbledon trophies. But besides her dominance on the tennis court, King also furthered the sport beyond anyone's imagination.
Casual tennis fans will always remember the five-time world No.1 for her September 20, 1973 victory over Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes". Played at the Houston Astrodome in Texas in front of a record 30,482 people (a number that remained the largest tennis crowd until 2010, when Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams participated in an exhibition match with an audience of 35,681 at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels) King defeated the former Wimbledon champion in straight sets, illustrating just how strong the women's game was, and putting women's tennis in the consciousness of sports fans.
But while people may tend to go back to that one match when thinking about King's advancement of women and sport, she did even more in that same year alone to progress the game to new levels.
In 1973, the US Open offered equal prize money for the first time - the only Grand Slam to do so - in no small part to King's hard work. After winning the title in 1972, but taking home less prize money than her male counterpart, King declared she would not compete the next year if women continued to receive less money.
The Hall-of-Famer also is the founder of the Women's Tennis Association, bringing female professional tennis together under one umbrella in 1973. King had laid down the first steps towards the WTA three years earlier, when she and eight other women broke away from the status quo and accepted $1 contracts to compete in a new women's tour. Called the Virginia Slims Circuit, it featured 19 tournaments in 1971, and allowed King to become the first woman to earn $100,000 in winnings in a single year.
Since her retirement in 1983, King's accomplishments and accolades have not stopped, and she continues to advocate for women's athletics. Recognizing her achievements forging new ground for female athletes and fighting for equal rights, Life magazine named her one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" in 1990. The men and women of professional tennis also now battle for the US Open title at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, named for the champion in 2006.
At 67 years old, King's involvement in the sport has never wavered, and women's tennis will always be better off for it.