MORE THAN AN ATHLETE

A champion on and off the tennis court

Billie Jean King’s influence on women’s sports and gender equality is unmatched.

By JOSHUA SACHER

To start this week’s column, let’s play a game. I want you to think of the greatest women tennis players of all time. Got it?

Did names like Serena Williams, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova come to mind?


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Actually, wait, scratch that. Now, I want you to think of the greatest women athletes of all time in any sport.

Did Serena Williams come to mind again? Simone Biles? Lindsey Vonn? Jackie Joyner-Kersee? This list goes on of incredible women athletes over the years.

However, all of the historic women athletes that came to your mind were only able to display their greatness because of the social justice efforts and sacrifice of one woman: Billie Jean King.

When King first stepped foot on a tennis court in 1954 at 11 years old, the sport was predominantly male. So much so that there were very few acknowledged women professional tennis players, and no college gave sporting scholarships to women.

A year later, at the age of 12, King saw gender disparity for the first time as a player in a Los Angeles Tennis Club event. She chose to forgo the conventional tennis skirt used by female competitors in favor of tennis shorts and, as a result, was not allowed to participate in a group picture of junior tennis players.

Fast forward to 1971, King quickly discovered that gender discrimination in tennis wasn’t limited to clothing regulations. It extended to prize money as well. Ranked as the world’s best tennis player, she became the first woman athlete to win more than $100,000 in prize money. Nevertheless, she took home $15,000 less than the men’s champion after winning the 1972 U.S. Open. She then made it her mission to make prize money equal for men and women.

Her lobbying efforts paid off in 1973 when the U.S. Open became the first significant tennis event to award equal prize money to men and women. Both sexes now share the same prize money at all four Grand Slams. 

Later that year, the wage equality movement attracted attention from around the globe. Former world No. 1 tennis player Bobby Riggs boasted he could defeat King, who was 29 at the time. King agreed to his challenge after Riggs said the women’s game was inferior to the men’s. 

She was under a lot of pressure to win the match and thus put in endless training for the sake of all women battling for equality. On Sept. 20, 1973, 90 million people worldwide tuned in to see what the promoters dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” King beat Riggs in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

After the iconic battle, King formed the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974 and co-founded womenSports magazine. The foundation’s goals were to develop leaders by giving girls access to athletics. Additionally, it strived to defend Title IX — which forbids sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funds — in court.

I could go on and on about her activism over the years, but in 2009, she was awarded by then-President Barack Obama for her years of advocacy efforts. She became the first woman athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I asked earlier who was the greatest woman tennis player and athlete of all time, I would not be surprised if King came to mind for many of you. King accomplished amazing things on the tennis court. Twelve singles, 16 women’s doubles and 11 mixed doubles championships were among her 39 Grand Slam victories. During the 1960s and 1970s, she was the most dominant force in women’s tennis. 

However, it was her actions off of the court which made her one of the most influential athletes in sports history. The next generation of women athletes — of all athletes — should be grateful for the advocacy and sacrifice of Billie Jean King: a champion on and off the court.

Joshua Sacher is a sophomore writing about athletes who led the change for social justice in his column, “More Than An Athlete,” which runs every other Thursday. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan.

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