Billie Jean King, a gigantic tennis player, icon of the battle of the sexes, turns 80

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By John

From the tennis courts where he won everything to the successful battles for the equality of women and homosexuals, the path of Billie Jean King it has marked the history of sport and civil rights and is far from stopping even if next Tuesday this global icon will reach the milestone of 80 years. Tomorrow a documentary dedicated to various athletes of yesterday and today will be broadcast on TV in the USA, of which she is executive producer and presenter. It’s called “Groundbreakers”, revolutionary. And it is difficult to find a more suitable term to define Billie Jean, the protagonist of the “battle of the sexes”, the ’73 match-event against Bobby Riggs to demonstrate that female tennis players can compete with men. That match, as well as a film starring Emma Stone, has become the symbol of a fight for equality, expressed in a thousand other ways. The birthday will be an opportunity to celebrate the former tennis player who founded the WTA and gives her name to the women’s Davis, for her fans and admirers all over the world, with women in the front row paying homage to the one who made so much for their freedom and their rights, in sport and in everyday life. But what she has achieved does not seem to be enough for her, she remains so committed every day, continuing to live up to her motto, “pressure is a privilege”. Tireless, she travels the world looking for more investments and equity for women’s sports; she is a shareholder of Los Angeles Dodgers, franchise of MLB baseball, of the Angel City FC women’s football club and of the nascent PWHL women’s professional hockey league. She is the founder and soul of the Women’s Sports Foundation and recently launched a production company called ‘Pressure is a Privilege’.
The strength of his commitment and his successes are based on the enormous talent he was able to express on the tennis courts, where he dominated for years, with 12 Grand Slam titles in singles, another 16 in doubles and 11 in mixed doubles, becoming in 1971, the first female athlete to earn over one hundred thousand dollars in prize money, over 60 million in Italian lire at the time. But in the meantime her battle for equal purses between male and female tennis players had already begun three years ago, after discovering that her third victory at Wimbledon had only brought her 750 pounds (about a million in lira), while Rod Laver he had achieved almost three times as much. A difference that made her indignant, leading her in 1970 to organize a professional women’s tour, which later became the WTA, and in 1973 to threaten a boycott at the US Open, which decided to equalize the prize money. A revolution that began 50 years ago but is still struggling to complete, given that only in 2027 will female players receive the same prize as men in non-slam tournaments. Just to underline the point, in that same 1973 the 30-year-old King defeated former US champion Bobby Riggs, then 55 years old, on the field in what was defined as the ‘battle of the sexes’: with 30 thousand people in the stands in Houston and 90 million viewers , was another event that helped change the course of history.
Having hung up her racket ten years later, in the meantime the champion – married since 1965 to Lawrence King, from whom she took her surname, leaving the familiar one of Moffit – took an important step in her life, and not only that, by publicly declaring herself gay in 1981. A decision also linked to a legal dispute with his then partner but which he paid dearly, even in the most literal sense, with the sponsors fleeing. “I kept playing just to get by and pay the lawyers, otherwise I would have stopped,” she later explained. After the divorce in 1987, she became involved with her former colleague Ilana Kloss, whom she married five years ago, and also began to fight against the taboos that still prevent people from declaring themselves homosexual, especially in sport. In 2012 she was chosen by President Barack Obama to represent the United States at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, an investiture that gave her great joy precisely for that which she believed was “a turning point for the universal acceptance of all people”, but then a trivial illness prevented her from participating.
As evidence of her decades of tireless commitment, in 2020 it was decided to name the Fed Cup, the women’s Davis Cup, after her. Now, some members of the US Congress and Senate have presented the proposal to award her the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. She may be announced within the year, but little will change for the 80-year-old Billie Jean. She will continue her battles.