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The Legend: Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King

 

 

Billie Jean King, (born November 22, 1943, California, U.S.), American tennis player whose influence and playing style elevated the status of women’s professional tennis beginning in the late 1960s. In her career she won 39 major titles, competing in both singles and doubles.

King was athletically inclined from an early age. She first attracted international attention in 1961 by winning the Wimbledon doubles championship with Karen Hantz; theirs was the youngest team to win. She went on to capture a record 20 Wimbledon titles (singles 1966–68, 1972–73, and 1975; women’s doubles 1961–62, 1965, 1967–68, 1970–73, and 1979; mixed doubles 1967, 1971, and 1973–74), in addition to U.S. singles (1967, 1971–72, and 1974), French singles (1972), and the Australian title (1968); her Wimbledon record was tied by Martina Navratilova in 2003. She was perhaps one of the greatest doubles players in the history of tennis, winning 27 major titles. With her victories in 1967, she was the first woman since 1938 to sweep the U.S. and British singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles in a single year.

King turned professional after 1968 and became the first woman athlete to win more than $100,000 in one season (1971). In 1973 she beat the aging Bobby Riggs in a much-publicized “Battle of the Sexes” match. The match set a record for the largest tennis audience and the largest purse awarded up to that time. She pushed relentlessly for the rights of women players, helped to form a separate women’s tour, and obtained financial backing from commercial sponsors. She was one of the founders and the first president (1974) of the Women’s Tennis Association.

King and her husband, Larry King (married 1965–87), were part of a group that founded World TeamTennis (WTT) in 1974. King served as the player-coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, thus becoming one of the first women to coach professional male athletes. The WTT folded after 1978 because of financial losses, but King revived the competition in 1981. In that same year King admitted to having had a homosexual affair with her former secretary, who was suing King for material support. (Her secretary lost the lawsuit.) In so doing, King became the most prominent female athlete to have come out as a lesbian at that time, but she subsequently lost all her endorsement contracts as a result. After her divorce from Larry King, she publicly embraced her homosexuality and became an advocate for gay rights.

King retired from competitive tennis in 1984 and the same year became the first woman commissioner in professional sports in her position with the World TeamTennis League. She was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.

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