This past summer, the US Tennis Association (USTA) has renamed the US Open complex at Flushing Meadows the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. No one in American tennis is more deserving of the honor.
Billie Jean King won 39 “Grand Slam” (the Australian, French and US Opens, and Wimbledon) events, and was ranked as the world’s top female player 1966-1968, 1972 and 1974. But her most memorable match, the one that drew the largest tennis television audience in history, was her fabled match with Bobby Riggs.
Riggs, who died in 1995, was a world-class tennis player. During his run as an amateur and a professional, he was ranked No. 1 in the world, defeating, usually multiple times, all of the world’s top players. But his relatively small size ultimately made him vulnerable to the fast pace of hard courts.
Upon retirement, Riggs became a tennis promoter, then tennis hustler as he challenged people to gimmick matches. In 1973, with the “women’s movement” in full bloom, Riggs, then 55, saw an opportunity to cash in on the “The male is king” and “The male is supreme” chauvinism of the day. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls.” He proclaimed women’s tennis “inferior” to the men’s game, saying he could beat any female player.
Margaret Court, one of the world’s best-ever female tennis players, at age 40, accepted the challenge. Riggs beat her soundly, 6-2, 6-1, whereupon Billie Jean King, almost 40, took up the challenge. They met 20 September 1973 in the Astrodome in what became known as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Whereas the Riggs-Court match was played under women’s rules of best of three sets, King agreed to play a best of 5 match, winning handily, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. I remember that match well. Raised in very “liberated” home–especially for the South–my mother, believing firmly in gender equality, was very much a feminist, though she never labeled herself that.
My mother believed that there simply wasn’t much beyond brute strength a man could do that a woman couldn’t do. Perhaps that came from her being a “Rosie the riveter” during WWII. With those roots, I was firmly in Billie Jean’s corner. Besides, my wife was a feminist, strong willed, fiercely independent. Had Billie Jean lost, out of general principal, I would have had to sleep on the couch for the rest of the year.
So, for me, a lot was riding on this match–and for Billie Jean too. She said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” She didn’t lose, and the earth shook.
The next day, secretaries reportedly marched into their bosses’ offices, demanding raises. In 1973, the US Open, largely in response to efforts by King, became the 1st major tournament to pay men and women equally.
Upon retirement, King continued to work promoting tennis, and for increased opportunity for women and women’s equality in sports, as well as gender and racial equality in general. She co-founded World Team Tennis, the Women’s Sports Federation, and the Women’s Tennis Association, under which virtually all women’s professional tennis is played.
Introducing Billie Jean at the dedication ceremony, Mary Carrillo lauded King’s “on-going quest to bring out the best in the human spirit” and her “zealous commitment to tolerance, opportunity, and the belief people working together can create a better world.”
King, in comments before and during the dedication ceremonies, seemed almost overwhelmed. When Tracy Austin asked King to recount her contributions to tennis, King discussed how this honor was not hers, but belonged to all those people–people known and unknown to her—who had touched her life, who had provided her with opportunities, helped her develop her skills, inspired her, guided her in ways she did not and still does not fully realize. She said this honor belonged to these people, “the heroes and sheroes in the trenches” who labor with little recognition, yet who make possible the great achievements of others.
Tracy tried to get King to discuss the impact that she had had on others, but Billie Jean wanted to talk about the work still needing to be done. Title IX, mandating schools receiving federal funds fund male and female athletics equally, was passed in 1972 and implemented in 1973. Though it has resulted in tremendous progress in developing women’s athletics, funding still isn’t equal.
King realizes inequality goes far beyond women’s sports. Today according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women’s average income is 58.3% of men’s average income. This is a huge improvement over the 40.9% mean of 1973, but leaves us far from parity. Despite disappearing differences in education levels, women still generally work at lower status and lower income jobs than men. Even when working in the same profession, women’s incomes generally lag behind men’s.
For ethnic groups, the results are much the same. Today, Blacks’ average income is 57.3% of whites, and Hispanics’ is 57.1%. Poor education explains much of this. Dropout rates for Blacks and Hispanics are far higher than for whites. In the Valley, high schools graduate roughly 50% of the original 1st grade class. That’s horrible, but some predominately Black schools, Baltimore, Maryland’s Southern High, for example, graduate about 20% of their entering freshman–9th grade–class. Plus there is a huge disparity in the quality of education provided in affluent and poor, minority schools.
King is a true pioneer, like Belva Lockwood–teacher, lawyer, first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court (1879), first woman to be nominated for president by a political party (1884)–suffragettes Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony; modern day women’s rights leaders Gloria Steinem, Bellah Abzug, Betty Friedan; and, of course, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and Dr. King.
Billy Jean King understands we have much farther to go than we’ve come. “Athletes are good motivators; and we inspire others. But the true sheroes and heroes are in the trenches. They’re your teachers. … People who shaped my life.” “It’s not about me. It’s about connecting with human beings.” “Its about social change.” “I wanted to change minds and hearts. Minds and hearts kinds of things take longer…. Girls still get less.” Non-Whites still get less.
Unlike politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties, Billie Jean King “gets it.” With the chase for the Democratic and Republican nominations now on, the main contenders are mouthing platitudes and concerns, and promise to fight, fight, fight, with all of their might, might, might. But none of them “get it.” Maybe we should give serious thought to BILLIE JEAN KING FOR PRESIDENT! What a refreshing change that would be over the hacks of the past 35 years.
published with permission of The Advance News Journal,
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