The legendary tennis player has been one of the first to hold the baton for having sports with equality for all genders.
As the 2023 U.S. Open commenced, the spotlight turned to the remarkable evolution of women's sports over the past five decades. Billie Jean King, a legendary tennis icon and former world No. 1 player, stands at the forefront of this transformation. On the tournament's opening day in New York, former first lady Michelle Obama paid tribute to this trailblazing professional, highlighting the event's commitment to equitable pay for all athletes. "Billie Jean teaches us that when the balance is at stake, we all face a choice," Obama remarked. "We can passively accept what's given to us, remain silent and hope someone else will fight our battles, or take a stand ourselves."
A trailblazer in her own right, the 79-year-old King shared her thoughts with "Good Morning America" about the progress she has witnessed and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. Looking at a photograph of the "Battle of the Sexes" 50 years later, she said: "This was at the Astrodome in 1973, September 20. I may appear on the defensive here, but I was actually on the offensive. I emerged victorious, and that's what I remember." King's iconic moment in history occurred during the "Battle of the Sexes" where she faced off against Bobby Riggs, a former No. 1 tennis pro, in an exhibition match in Houston, winning convincingly in straight sets.
This event was not merely a tennis showdown but a clash of ideologies, with Riggs displaying a chauvinistic attitude towards women's tennis. After the match, Riggs humbly acknowledged his underestimation of King's abilities. King's father's teachings of respecting opponents resonated deeply with her, even in the face of adversity. King said, "I really respected Bobby." Half a century later, King emphasizes that female athletes continue to grapple for equitable opportunities.
Despite significant strides, including 50 years of equal prize money at the U.S. Open and the enactment of Title IX in 1972, there remains a considerable journey ahead. Seeing another photo from 2018 with Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams wherein the former won, King said: "This shows you how each generation of players have made a difference. I mean, Serena is giving back. She's investing now. She's investing in women, and particularly women of color." Talking about the first-time winner Osaka, King said, "Osaka, I think, brought mental health to everyone's attention and I love the way she stands up for communities." Society's changing landscape allows today's athletes greater freedom to champion important causes.
In 2018, King served as the grand marshal at the annual New York City Pride March, an event where she finally felt liberated. Her journey includes being married to the late Larry King during her professional tennis career, and later coming out as a lesbian in 1981. Today, King stands as a prominent LGBTQ+ activist. Her experiences underscore the challenges she faced at a time when discussing such matters was discouraged. Publicly coming out resulted in the loss of endorsements, forcing her to rebuild her life. King's story reflects resilience and a commitment to creating a more inclusive world for all.
This August, The Stonewall Inn designated the U.S. Open as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, a gesture that resonated deeply with King. She believes that when individuals can be their authentic selves, they lead more fulfilling lives and contribute positively to the world. Billie Jean King's legacy extends far beyond the tennis court. Her unwavering dedication to gender equality, advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, and support for the next generation of athletes continue to inspire change, ensuring that the realm of sports remains a powerful catalyst for social progress.