Happy birthday to Billie Jean
King! The tennis legend and pioneer for gender equality who is most famous for
having dominated Bobby Riggs in the legendary 1973 Battle of the Sexes turns 74-years-old
The legend herself photographed playing tennis in 1977 (x).
Billie Jean King was born on November
22, 1943 in Long Beach, California. Her father was a firefighter, her mother a
housewife, and together they raised Billie and her brother in a conservative Methodist
household. The King family had a special knack for sports and Billie began playing
softball as a small child, but after her mother deemed it too “unladylike” of a
sport, Billie dropped it and decided to pick up tennis at age 11. She got her
start playing on public courts and attending free lessons and eventually made a name for herself in local tournaments for having a specially aggressive playing
style. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she attended
California State University.
Billie eventually left college to
focus on her tennis career, which paid off in 1961 when she and her doubles
partner Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest women’s duo to ever win
Wimbledon, catapulting both of them into the international spotlight. By 1972,
Billie had won a record of 20 career titles at Wimbledon and became only the 5th
woman in tennis history to win the singles titles at every single Grand Slam
event. In 1973, Billie was challenged by the top male tennis player of the day,
Bobby Riggs, into an exhibition match that would, Bobby hoped, prove once and for all that men
were better athletes than women. The match was dubbed the Battle of the Sexes
and garnered frenetic media attention. After winning the match and being
declared a feminist icon, Billie said,
“I thought it would set us back 50
years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect
all women’s self-esteem…to beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The
thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
Billie Jean King attends the premiere of the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes with her partner Ilana Kloss, who is sporting a shirt with Billie’s face circa 1973 (x).
In 1965, Billie married a man
named Larry King who she had met while attending college. Three years into the
marriage, Billie would have the realization that she is a lesbian and begin an
affair with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. When the relationship between the
two women accidentally became public in a 1981 palimony law suit, Billie became
known as one of the very first women athletes to be known as a lesbian.
However, she would deny that identity for many years stating that her
relationship with Marilyn had been a mistake. Today, Billie is retired from
tennis and lives an out lesbian life with her former doubles partner and
current life partner Ilana Kloss.