Ilana Kloss was a 10-year-old ball kid in Johannesburg, South Africa when Billie Jean King -- three months before winning her first Wimbledon title in 1966 -- asked if she wanted to hit some tennis balls.
“That was the day I decided to be a professional tennis player -- and there wasn’t even a professional tour yet,” Kloss said Tuesday from her home in New York City. “I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. Billie has been a force in my life ever since.”
And vice versa, for they have been partners in every sense for the past four decades and were married in 2018. Kloss has had the catbird seat as King’s visions of equality for women’s tennis have gradually seeped out into society and the world at large.
“It’s like when she played,” Kloss said. “She could always see the court from the top, while I would just see the other side of the net. She can see where she wants things to go and she’s unbelievably persistent in that vision.
“Billie says as long as she can continue to make a difference for others, she’s going to keep doing it.”
On the Mt. Rushmore of feminists
It can be argued that King, born Billie Jean Moffitt 80 years ago on Wednesday in Long Beach, California, has had as great an impact on women’s rights as anyone in American history. King was named one of Life Magazine’s 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century, and she continues to work so indefatigably, the inside joke is she might make the 21st Century list as well.
Certainly, it’s a small group at the top:
The work of Susan B. Anthony, Elisabeth Stanton, Ida Wells and Alice Paul helped lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote in 1920. Under the legal pseudonym "Jane Roe” Norma McCorvey won her 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that affirmed women's right to abortions.
Modern feminist writers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem did much to alter popular (and outdated) opinions about women, as did political leaders Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. Former First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris' contributions have been groundbreaking, and each woman’s impact seems far from done.
The breadth of King’s accomplishments sets her apart. She has worked for civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive freedom, legislative change such as Title IX and progressive political candidates. She still pushes for diversity, equity and inclusion in everywhere from CEO suites to sports, where she and Kloss are involved not just in tennis but also as part owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, LA Sparks of the WNBA and Angel City in the National Women’s Soccer League. Kloss and King were also instrumental in the creation of the new professional women’s hockey league that will begin play in 2024.
“Billie Jean pushed the ball forward toward women’s equality in a way that really cannot be measured,” 18-time major singles champion Martina Navratilova said in a text. “She not only transcended tennis, she transcended sports and made millions of women and girls feel stronger and braver in every way.”
Pam Shriver, a 22-time major doubles champion, is another devoted student of history.
“I think putting BJK alongside those historic figures is justified,” Shriver said. “She should be on the Mt. Rushmore for people impacting women’s rights.”
Publicly, King tends to deflect such sweeping notions, but she understands her vital role in the feminist continuum.
Several years ago, during the reporting of the 2021 New York Times best seller “All In: An Autobiography,” King looked at her co-author Johnette Howard and said, in all seriousness, “You know I’m the OG, right?”
Howard, amused to hear an original gangster reference from a septuagenarian, responded, “Oh, you think so?”
King shot back, “Well, who else would it be?”
And while they both burst into laughter, it’s a fair question to ask.
Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, had this take on the book: “A story about the personal strength, immense growth and undeniable greatness of one woman who fearlessly stood up to a culture trying to break her down.”
A swift series of game-changers
King would win 12 major singles titles, 16 more in doubles and 11 in mixed doubles -- for a total of 39 -- but her most meaningful victories were scored a half-century ago in a tumultuous span of four months.
The first came in June 1973, with the birth of the Women’s Tennis Association. King commandeered 60 of her peers at London’s Gloucester Hotel and, with equal prize money as the ultimate goal, convinced them their strength was in their numbers. A few weeks later, she would sweep singles, doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon -- an achievement that hasn’t been matched since.
Kloss, the 1972 Wimbledon junior champion, was in that charged meeting.
“It’s not very often that you are part of something that’s a first, right?” she said. “It’s a moment in time -- and you’re either there or you’re not.
“Billie was risking a lot more than anyone else because she was already getting guarantees, in great demand, winning multiple titles at Wimbledon. It really wasn’t that tough of a decision because I thought if it was good enough for Billie Jean, I knew it was going to be good for me.”
King leveraged that collective muscle almost immediately. In winning the 1972 US Open, King had received $10,000 in prize money -- $15,000 less than the men’s winner, Ilie Nastase. After the WTA was formed, she told the US Open organizers she wouldn’t play in 1973 unless the women’s and men’s winners received the same check.
“She’s No.1 in the world, she has all of us behind her,” said Bostrom, who was also present at the Gloucester Hotel for that pivotal meeting. “And the US Open said, `Yes, we will have equal prize money for women.’
“This notion of equal prize money turned into something broader. So what she did, I believe, went on to help equal pay for women everywhere.”
In 1973, Australians Margaret Court and John Newcombe each received $25,000 for winning the US Open in September. It was King, behind the scenes, who delivered Bristol Myers Squibb (and Ban deodorant) as the sponsor that furnished the entire winner’s purse. This year, each winner in New York received $3 million.
And while it was only an exhibition, the spectacle that was “the Battle of the Sexes” later that month might have done more to change perceptions than anything else. King took down former Wimbledon and US Open champion Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the Houston Astrodome with a global television audience in excess of 90 million.
“To beat a 55-year-old guy was not a thrill for me,” King said, “The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
And debunking the myth that women were somehow inferior to men and incapable of handling pressure.
Reaching a `tipping point’
The WTA’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year have been a well-deserved victory lap for King.
“It’s been amazing,” Kloss said. “I think Billie’s philosophy is as long as she feels good and she can go, she wants to go. She’s actually getting to see some of the dreams she had coming to fruition.”
Indeed, King was one of more than 75,000 on hand this summer in Sydney when Spain bested England 1-0 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. According to the BBC, the peak audience of 14 million in Great Britain eclipsed the one that watched the Wimbledon men’s final one month earlier.
Ten days later, 92,000 fans -- the largest crowd ever to witness a women’s sporting event -- flocked to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska for a volleyball match between Nebraska and Omaha. Women’s professional soccer and basketball leagues continue to succeed.
Kloss said that King is thrilled to see a “tipping point” when billionaires, the networks, advertisers are finally seeing women’s sports as a sound investment. And women’s tennis was ground zero for it all.
“But,” Kloss emphasized, “the biggest discrepancy is in [the percentage of] sports media coverage. It was a four, five percent, and now I think it’s 15 percent. The only way people follow you is if they know you. So we have to continue to push people to invest in telling stories.”
King has continued to work vigorously for the concept of equality, not to mention diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ rights.
“When Billie Jean King battled for equal opportunity in tennis, she was just starting,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said. Her commitment, drive and belief in equity and inclusion -- not just in sports, but society as a whole -- remain a guiding light and inspiration to all of us in the WTA family. In our 50th year, we are so fortunate to be able to call her our founder, and as we celebrate her 80thbirthday we honor the platform she launched for the athletes of today -- as well as those to come.”
Into the fifth set
King, who has always had a supernatural sense of urgency, is feeling it even more these days.
“She has this sense of running out of time -- she always has, even as a young kid,” Kloss said. “And the fact is, she is running out of time now, right? She’s in the fifth set -- this is when we want long sets, for the match to go as long as it can. It’s the only time she wouldn’t want a tiebreaker and no-ad scoring.
“She’s incredibly proud that women’s tennis has led, but she keeps saying women’s tennis needs to wake up -- because other sports are catching up, which is ultimately a good thing.”
So, realistically, what’s on the to-do list as King heads into her ninth decade?
She still wants to make tennis better, according to Kloss. She would like to see the ATP and WTA Tours working closer together. She wants women to have the same opportunities, in terms of access and investment, as men. The ongoing commitment to these issues, she said, is what continues to drive King.
Kloss agrees with the premise that King has done as much for women’s rights as anyone but has some unusual insight on how it has been achieved.
“I would add that she’s probably had the most significant impact on boys and men as well,” Kloss said. “She’s been able to bring people together in a conversation where they open their eyes to see the power that dads, men and boys have to change things.”
Count former President Barack Obama as one of those converted. He watched King practicing when he attended the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii and she briefly lived there. He also was profoundly affected by the Battle of the Sexes match.
“Because of that,” Obama told King when they met later, “I treat my daughters differently.”
King’s monumental impact goes far beyond women.
“She changed the way men wanted their daughters, mothers and sisters to be treated,” Kloss said. “To me, that’s an unbelievable legacy.”