Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King, the revolutionary

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy (published in 1990)

Like Ashe, Billie Jean King had a pioneering zeal that made her an inspiring leader of many causes. If there was no crusade available, she invented one. They included her campaign for parity of prize money and draw numbers between men and women; the introduction of professional ‘team tennis’ and the concept’s expansion to other levels of the game; her famous ‘Battle of the Sexes‘ with Bobby Riggs, an occasion that had implications and effects outweighing the showbiz razzmatazz; her role in forming the Women’s Sports Foundation and re-enforcing the women’s liberation movement; and a maze of associated business ventures. For all that, King will most obviously be remembered for her supreme tally of Wimbledon titles during a span of 23 years. She began that Wimbledon saga as ‘Little Miss Moffitt’ and ended it as a self-styled ‘Old Lady’ who seemed to be part of the furniture. By that time she had graduated to the same class of all-time Grand Slam champions as Helen Wills and Margaret Court. But neither of these (nor any other woman, for that matter) matched King’s revolutionary status. consequently, because of her combined achievements on and off court, she became the most important figure in the history of women’s tennis.

King’s father, an engineer in the Long Beach fire department was an all-around athlete but had no interest in tennis. Her mother was a good swimmer and her brother Randy became a major-league baseball pitcher. When she first played tennis, at the age of 11, King used a racket borrowed from a friend. Then she popped spare nickels and dimes into a jar until she had $8, which was all she needed to buy a racket from the local sports shop. She made the most of the free lessons available in pubic parks at Long Beach and seized the chance to study celebrities in action at Los Angeles. King particularly liked the serve-and-volley style of Louise Brough and at 15 she spent three months receiving weekend tuition from another one-time US and Wimbledon champion, Alice Marble, who had a similarly aggressive game. Aspiring climbers are taught not to reduce the leverage of fingers and toes by getting too close to the rock. For different reasons, Marble warned King not to get too close to the ball.

Moffitt spent three years at Los Angeles State College, where she met a law student called Larry King. They were to marry in 1965. Meantime she was developing a liking for Wimbledon. In 1961, aged 17, the tomboyish Moffitt won the Wimbledon doubles with Karen Hantze, 18. King built rapidly on that early success and in 1963 she reached the Wimbledon singles final. But the road to full-time tennis was rather bump in those days and King as 21 before she could press the accelerator hard down and keep it there. Late in 1964 Bob Mitchell, the Melbourne businessman who had previously helped Margaret Court, offered to pay King’s way to Australia, where Mervyn Rose improved her groundstrokes and service and put her through a sharpening programme of training and practice drills. With a remodeled game and a total commitment to the circuit, King brought increasing confidence and intensity to her 1965 campaign. Court stopped her in an Australian semi-final and US final. Bueno stopped her in a Wimbledon semi-final. But King had beaten both in previous years, before Rose brought a bloom to her tennis, and thee could no longer be any doubt that the Court-Bueno duopoly of grass was not going to last much longer.

The break-through came in 1966 when King beat Court in a Wimbledon semi-final and Bueno in the final to win her first Grand Slam singles title. In 1967, the last year of ‘shamateur’ competition, King made about $7,000 under the counter and, more to the point, beat Ann Jones 11-9 6-4 in the US final to become the first player since Alice Marble (her former mentor), in 1939, to win all three championships at Wimbledon and Forest Hills the same year. The rest of King’s career was so triumphantly crowded with dazzling tennis and thrilling matches (plus the often controversial crusades) that we can permit ourselves only a few marginal notes and cameos.

In 1968 she signed a two-year contract, for $80,000, with George MacCall‘s previously men-only touring group, the National Tennis League – an enterprise in which she was joined by Rosie Casals, Françoise Durr and Ann Jones. In 1970 came that improbably marvelous Wimbledon final with Court. In 1970, too, King was commanding about $1,500 to $2,000 a week in private fees. But like most of the other leading women she was discontented with the deal they were getting in terms of prize money at mixed tournaments. Finally nine players signed one-week contacts, for $1 a head, with Gladys Heldman, who had founded the players magazine World Tennis and had a string of useful contacts. These included Joe Cullman, representing a tobacco company which contributed a third of the prize money to the inaugural $7,500 Virginia Slims tournament. Played at Houston in September, 1970, that event launched the independent women’s tour we now take for granted.

King, who had so many promotional ideas that they were like beans spilling out of a can, thought it might help the cause – and break ground for women’s sport in general – if she could win more than $100,000 in one year of competition. True, Althea Gibson had earned that much in 1960, from her share of the gate when she she and Karol Fageros went on tour as a warm-up act with the Harlem Globetrotters. But what was a head-to-head showbiz series rather than tournament competition against all comers. Anyway, King won $117,000 in 1971 and everybody noticed.

In King’s early years players were excessively controlled by their national associations and she was 22 before her tennis education was advanced by the French championships: for me, the ultimate test of a genuine champion. By 1972 that was the only major title missing from her collection – but by 1972 she was also the complete player. In Paris she was a complete virtuoso: bubbling in zest and confidence, and as adept in her tactical variations as she was in her deft use of the drop and lob. In design and execution, this was glorious tennis: and in five matches she lost only 25 games.

The successful conclusion of three crusades gave King special cause for satisfaction in 1973, her 30th year. THe first was the foundation of the WTA, a players’ union. The second was the introduction of prize money parity with the men at the US championships. King’s third crusade that year concerned Bobby Riggs, who had won all three Wimbledon titles in 1939 and was now bragging that he was still good enough to beat any woman. A betting man with much of the hustler and spiv in him, Riggs threw out the challenge with typical hype and showmanship. Margaret Court took him on, near San Diego, but was overwhelmed b an ambiance that smacked of the circus, the fairground, the market. That was not her scene. There was no way she could play her best tennis: and Riggs gently manoeuvred her through a nightmare to inevitable defeat. King sympathized with Court but was cross. Very cross. All the work she and others had done for the status and dignity of women’s tennis – and women’s sport as a whole – was threatened with erosion and ridicule. So she went back to Houston, exactly three years after the women’s game had achieved independence in the same city, and gave Riggs a pasting: 6-4 6-3 6-3. Unlike Court, King thrived on hype, razzmatazz, showbiz. And she had an awful lot to prove. For her, that match mattered more than, any other she had ever played. THe winner’s purse of $100,000 (plus $200,000 in television fees) was irrelevant compared with the vast publicity – a crowd of almost 30,500 in the Astrodome, countless thousands watching via TV or listening to the radio, and acres of printed coverage – accorded to King’s triumphant cause célèbre. Flint-eyed, she was mercilessly professional in giving Riggs his come-uppance. In addition to everything else, the match accelerated the advance of tennis as a big-business public spectacle.

There were many memorable occasions to come, not least King’s exciting 3-6 6-3 7-5 win over Evonne Goolagong in the 1974 US final. But she had proved all she ever needed to prove. Her enduring success was all the more remarkable because – fine athlete though she was, with fast footwork and reactions – King was a stocky 5ft 4 1/2in with glasses and a weight problem. Given her physical conformation, her tendency towards plumpness, and the nature of her profession and her playing style, it was by no means startling that we lost count of King’s knee operations. Those knees took an awful lot of stress and were rebuilt in the course of surgical excavations.

Court once observed:

“Billie Jean is the greatest competitor I’ve ever known.”

King never let up, mentally or physically. She had a domineering will and was always thinking. Every tactical avenue was explored. She never relaxed the pressure. All was bustling, bouncy aggression. Even between points she looked busy: whereas Court had an upright, rather stiff gait, as if taking part in a state procession. That contrast was equally evident in their conduct under stress. Court was tight-lipped, undemonstrative, but King was always on the boil – talkative, often disputatious, prone to slap her thighs and punch the air. King had to be excited in order to play well.

It remains surprising that such a woman, rather dumpy, should achieve such comprehensive excellence. But King made the most of the one advantage her build gave her – no woman in my time has been as good a low volleyer. She was an uncommonly quick volleyer, too: and keeping her away from the net was like shooing a bee away from a pot of honey. Her overheads were so consistent that one could spend months waiting for her to miss one. Her game was based on getting to the net behind a service or a chipped return, but she was sound and shrewd rallier with strong groundstrokes, a variety of spins, and a sure touch on the lob and drop.
With all that going for her, she was an exemplary doubles partner. King and Rosie Casals played doubles like a pair of souped-up wallabies. King and Owen Davidson won almost as many Grand Slam titles as Margaret Court and Ken Fletcher.

In addition to her many other achievements – the championships, the fame, the money, the crusades – King did much to popularize tennis, to shift the emphasis from the country clubs to the masses. And there should be wider recognition of her belief that tennis is a sound education for life as a whole: because of the personal responsibility, the self-discipline, and the need to keep the brain active and take quick decisions. In this, as in so many other areas, King transformed a ground swell of half-formed ideas into waves of clear thinking.

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