Billie Jean King: Racquet Revolutionary

The lesbian/feminist/tennis pioneer who brings coed Word Team Tennis to Philly again this month is still trying to change the way the world thinks about men, women and sports

And you probably also remember the song King’s good friend Elton John wrote for her and her team, about the whip-poor-will of freedom and “Shine a light, won’t you shine a light.” Which is ironic, because King tried so hard for so long to deflect the bright beam of the public eye, to keep so many truths about herself—her marriage, her sexuality, her binge eating, her unhappiness—safely hidden away, out of sight.

SHE NEVER WANTED to play Bobby Riggs, for instance—to stand in that spotlight. She turned him down again and again when he proposed a match between them—he a 55-year-old hustler has-been, she the 29-year-old second-ranked female tennis player in the world. She’d had a nasty taste of notoriety in 1972, when her name appeared on a petition in Ms. magazine as one of 53 prominent women who’d had abortions. This was before Roe v. Wade, before abortions were legal in most of the United States. She thought she was just signing a petition in support of abortion rights, she claimed when the shit hit the fan; later,­ she’d say her husband had signed her name to the petition. Whatever. She never meant to become a spokeswoman for the cause; her decision to end her pregnancy—in those days, Larry had to sign off on it—was a private matter. But privacy has had a way of eluding King. So there was the headline in the Washington Post: “Abortion Made Possible Mrs. King’s Top Year”—in which she won 17 tournaments, was ranked number one in the world, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as Sportswoman of the Year. As though a medical procedure, not King, had been responsible for that.

And then Margaret Court, the Australian who overtook King for top ranking in 1973, agreed to take Riggs on, and lost to him, in May, in a 6-2, 6-1 match known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” After that, what choice did King have? She wasn’t a women’s libber; she was married to her college sweetheart. But she did get really, really incensed over the fact that while prizes in men’s matches ran to $12,500 and more, women played, even at the top echelons, for $1,500. Her point—no one believed it then—was that women’s tennis had just as much entertainment value as men’s, and its players should be paid accordingly.

She ran Riggs ragged in their match, ran him all over the court, after riding into the stadium on a litter borne by four husky, toga-clad college boys. Howard Cosell was in the broadcast booth; among the crowd of 30,000-plus that day were Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett, Glen Campbell, George Foreman. Ninety million more watched the match on TV around the world. King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, winning $100,000 and the hearts of girls and women everywhere.

THIS MADE FOR an uncomfortable fit. King had grown up in a cotton-candy-pink bedroom in a strict, conservative Methodist household in Southern California. Her dad was a fireman. Her mom was very pretty, and kept house. King’s only sibling, her younger brother Randy Moffitt, would become a major-league pitcher for the Giants, Astros and Blue Jays. Two pro athletes of different genders in one family? “I always thought Sports Illustrated should have written an article about that,” King says. She loved her parents, maybe too much. “My mother is such a good person,” she says. (Her dad died five years ago.) “That’s her legacy. She’s nice.”