Life’s Work: An Interview with Billie Jean King
at age 11, king tried tennis for the first time and found his calling. Not only did she become the best player in the world, but she also founded the women’s tennis association and the wta tour and pushed for gender pay equity and greater diversity in the sport. At the height of her career, after a triumph over Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, she was publicly and painfully denounced as gay, and she has since become an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. her new memories are included.
hbr: when did you know you wanted to become a professional tennis player?
king: well I was a kid in the 1950s and there was no professional tennis then. I was playing other sports—baseball, softball, basketball, all intramural, since we didn’t have school teams or leagues—but in fifth grade, at mrs. Delph’s class, Susan Land said to me, “Do you want to play tennis?” I said, “what is tennis?” she said, “you can run and hit a ball.” I said, “those are my favorite things. i’ll try.” so i went to her country club, we hit it off, and i loved it. my dad was a firefighter, so we couldn’t afford a country club. but susan told our softball coach that we had played, and she he told us there was free instruction at houghton park every tuesday and a coach clyde walker would teach me hallelujah my parents made me win the money for my first racket i went to the neighbors to plead my case and they were so nice with me. after that first session with clyde, when my mom picked me up, i told her that i had found what i wanted to do with my life: be the best tennis player in the world. every morning i make a thank you list and susan land is always on her.
when did your activism start?
I grew up knowing that a professional is really good and an amateur has a hobby. so I was furious from the beginning that tennis was not a professional sport yet. Fast forward to me at age 12, playing tournaments at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, which is the tennis mecca of Southern California, and realizing that tennis was all white: white shoes, socks, clothes, even white balls at that time, and everyone who played. I remember wondering: where are the others? I already knew that girls were second-class citizens, not listened to as much as boys. and my colored sisters had it much worse. That’s when I decided to fight for equality. tennis was played all over the world and I thought if I could become number one I would have a chance to make it a better place using tennis as a platform. I didn’t know that word then, but I do.
what were some of the key qualities that got you to the top?
I’m lucky because I was born with exceptional coordination. my brother randy, who became a major league baseball player, was too. my dad and mom gave us space, which most parents don’t have. and I was obsessed. I loved hitting the ball. I wanted to go to university: education meant everything to my family. but this was before title ix, so there were no athletic scholarships for women, which meant she had to work two jobs while at california state university, los angeles. meanwhile, some 30 miles away, arthur ashe had a full scholarship to the university of southern california. but we trained with our men’s team every afternoon, from 2 to 5, which ended up being a great advantage. Of course, wanting to be number one doesn’t mean you will be, and it’s never a straight line to the top. I was not the tennis poster girl. I was not the number one junior in southern california. he had doubts as to whether he would make it. it was a long and winding road. but people stood up for me and gave me faith that I could make it.
tell me about the founding of the wta tour.
When tennis became a professional sport, in 1968, women wanted to have a partnership with men, but they just turned us right and left, even though they were our friends. So, in 1970, my then-husband, Larry King, and I were trying to figure out how to put professional women’s tennis on the map. larry suggested that rosie casals and i talk to gladys holdman, the editor of world tennis magazine, about setting up a tour. gladys said that she would be happy to help us but she had no money. so I told him, “don’t worry. you can sign us all up for a dollar.” Nine players—Julie Holdman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey, Rosie, and myself—came together. We each signed a $1 contract on September 23, 1970. That was the birth of women’s professional tennis. we had to get organized in three months and then in 1971, with the encouragement of philip morris, we launched the virginia slims tour. Larry and I ran two of the first partner tournaments, and gladys kept adding them, so we had enough to go. we did it as a team and we risked our careers: we knew we could get suspended from other tournaments. but we didn’t mind. We wanted any girl in the world, if she was good enough, to have a place to compete and be appreciated for her accomplishments, not her looks. most importantly, because we come from the world of amateur tennis, earning $14 a day, we wanted to create a way to make a living playing the sport we love. of course some of us were suspended. but we stuck together and eventually the other tournaments accepted us.
you got a lot of attention for the battle of the sexes, a fight between you and bobby riggs. what were you trying to achieve with that event?
Bobby had been chasing me for a couple of years and he was one of my heroes, so I appreciated him. but she was working on the women’s tour and was already overloaded and not sleeping so i kept saying no. she finally started asking other women, and margaret court said yes. she told me that she planned to do it and earn a lot of money. I said, “I hear you, Margaret. but you have to win, for the tour, for the women.” and i told larry, “if she loses, i’m going to have to play him.” and they killed her.
how did you prepare for that essential moment?
the same week that i played with bobby, we also had a slims tournament in houston, virginia. I asked gladys, “won’t you let me go to this game?” and she said, “no.” so i played both, which was hard. Since I found out that Bobby was going to play, I visualized: I thought about playing well, running each ball, not caring if the surface was horrible, adapting. I like to say that pressure is a privilege, and I felt exactly that. I enjoy the big moments, being on the tennis stage, and I knew that winning could maybe catapult us forward in a big way, and not just in tennis. Title IX had been passed the year before, on June 23, 1972. Along with giving women the right to vote and the Civil Rights Act, it was one of the most important laws of the 20th century because it ended quotas in the classrooms. universities could no longer have only 5% women in a doctoral program, for example. and for the first time, women could get sports scholarships. the federal government stipulated that any school, high school or college, private or public, had to spend equally on boys and girls. Riggs’ match was a moment to help justify that decision. and I won.
How have you worked to make tennis more diverse?
In 1974 I founded the Women’s Sports Foundation to help athletes, particularly girls and women of color, with grants. over the years we have delivered close to $100 million. but since the beginning of the women’s tour we thought about how to make it more diverse and give girls of color a path to tennis. althea gibson was the first black player of either gender to win a major and she became one of my heroes. but we needed more players. as they say, “if you can see it, you can be it”. So gladys went to the American Tennis Association, which was majority black, and got three of her players—Bonnie Logan, Sylvia Hooks, and Ann Koger—to join the circuit. since then, we have had many women of color. most people know serena and venus williams. I think the lesson is that unless it’s intentional, things generally don’t change.
did the same happen with the push for gender pay equity?
yes. in 1968, the first year players were paid money in the big leagues, i got £750 for winning wimbledon and rod laver got £2000. I thought oh no. this is another fight we are going to have. That’s why we founded the women’s tennis association, to have a single voice and achieve it. eventually we did. in 2007 they began paying the same prize money to men and women in the majors.
after being found out, how did you persevere?
well, in the ’70s and ’80s, when it came to sexuality, it was a very difficult road. It was made very clear to me that I was not to discuss anything in that area, or we would not have a tour. so not only did I have my own challenges, but I also had responsibility for others. some people already assumed that if you were a girl in sports, you were a lesbian, and reporters, who were mostly men, were asking us about our sexuality. they would never do that to a male player, but with us women it was a free game. as players, we never talk about it with each other. Looking back, it’s interesting how everything was swept under the rug. there was real fear. then they took me out of the closet and it was excruciating, a really negative and difficult moment. when i did the audio of the book i even broke down a few times reliving this stuff. still, I could play tennis. the court was where I had some sanctuary, where no one but the referee could ask me questions. I had the support of other players, friends and larry. what also helped was therapy. psychiatrists made a huge difference in my life. especially in those days, we were supposed to be tough. but asking for help is important.
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon this year put a spotlight on the mental health of athletes. how did you deal with the pressure from the media and the public?
back in the day, there was no social media, so we had to spend a lot of time with the traditional press. We knew they would be the ones to tell our stories, and if we didn’t have the media on our side, we would fail. do they ask dumb questions? Yeah. the same questions? Yeah. but I thought they were fair most of the time. they are human beings trying to make a living too. today’s players need to better understand the business. when you make $55 million in a year, how does that happen? a large part is the media. we need each other.
You seem to enjoy the business side of sports.
yeah, larry and I had four tournaments at the same time. Of course, if they lost money, my prize money went into the budget, but that was good pressure. then we co-founded the world tennis team, and when i stopped playing, i went straight to that office right away. We sold the company five years ago, but now my partner, Ilana Kloss, and I co-own the Los Angeles Dodgers, Angel City FC, and Philadelphia Freedoms. we also have a for-profit, billie jean king enterprises, and a non-profit, the billie jean king leadership initiative, that do dei’s work. I want more women in ownership positions in sports. women are not taught to follow money. I want us to follow money, understand it and learn from it. the challenge is that guys are always mentoring other guys. I used to see him all the time in the lounge or dining room, especially as a fan: these former male players, now rich, talking to the young male players, making sure they got into the schools of their choice or got jobs for them. when they stopped playing. so I ask men to at least think about mentoring women, including women of color and women with disabilities, as much as they do men.
do you ever see yourself stepping out of the public domain and living a more private life?
I will fight the good fight until my last breath.