An ace of a humanist

Billie Jean King serves up a dynamic talk in Greenwich. Photograph by John Rizzo.

“What does WAG stand for?” Billie Jean King asks.

“A wit or a gossip, but we like to think it means ‘Women Are Great,’” comes the reply.

King roars with laughter.

“I love it,” she says, punching the air as she raises her fists in a series of small, fluid gestures. “Toot your own horn a bit.”

For most of her life, the tennis legend has been helping others do just that, galvanizing those who might’ve been unsure of the first step. She has been called a feminist, an activist for women, the LGBTQ community and other minority groups. But for her, feminism and activism are part of a larger “ism” — humanism. Anything less is limiting.

Photograph by John Rizzo.

“When women do something for women, it puts us in a box,” she says. She is well-aware of the irony of that statement at a press briefing before a benefit for Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Fund for Women & Girls at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich. The fund supports underserved women in everything from getting an education to starting a business to leaving an abusive relationship. (On this day, it will raise more than $700,000, with King spurring the effort with a $10,000 contribution of her own.) She knows that at a time when women do not earn pay equal to that of men for equal work; when U.S. maternal mortality is rising, particularly in the black community; when violence against women is a global crisis, “women understandably have this need to reach out to women. And women are leaders. What you do for them is not just for women but for children and nonprofits. When you help girls, you’re helping people. But it’s important to think of all genders.”

And linking various concerns:  The students advocating gun control — whom King sees as the heirs to the nonviolent struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. — should be talking to the leaders of Black Lives Matter, she says by way of example.

“It’s important to help each by listening to each other,” she says.

Shortly thereafter we go off to a scrumptious lunch in a ballroom embellished by centerpieces of roses, tulips and hydrangeas anchored by tennis balls in honor of the sport and the woman who helped shape it. We tend to think that those who achieve greatness in a particular profession must’ve emerged from the womb virtually clutching a stethoscope, a slide ruler — or a racket. But as King describes at the luncheon and in her book “Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes” (LifeTime Media Inc., 2008), tennis wasn’t her first love. Growing up modestly in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s — the dutiful daughter of a strict Navy man turned firefighter and a homemaking mother who preached persistence and the adoring big sister of a baseball-loving brother (future San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Randy Moffitt) — Billie Jean was enchanted by the piano. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, (tennis) was still perceived as a country club sport,” she writes in her book with co-author Christine Brennan, “and we definitely were not a country-club family.”

It wasn’t until the fifth grade — when her friend Susan Williams asked her if she would like to play tennis with her at the Virginia Country Club — that King first learned of the sport.

“What’s tennis?” she asked.

You get to run, jump and hit a ball, Susan told her.

Here King, a born performer, looks out at the audience with an expression of astonished delight. “Those are my three most favorite things,” she remembers telling Susan, with whom she’s still friends and who’s on her “morning blessings list.”

The tennis lessons offered by Clyde Walker — the instructor for Long Beach’s Parks, Recreation and Marine department — were free on Tuesdays, but King needed a racket, which, her father said, she would have to pay for herself. 

“He was very good on delayed gratification,” she says to audience laughter.

Working odd jobs in the neighborhood, she saved $8.29 in a Mason jar and plunked it down at Brown’s Sporting Goods for a racket whose strings and grip were purple, her favorite color. It was soon clear on Long Beach’s public courts, Long Beach Polytechnic High School, California State University, Los Angeles — where she majored in history and met her future husband, Larry King — that Billie Jean had greater hand-eye coordination for tennis than she did for the piano. 

Today, tennis players are among the world’s richest athletes. But when King was starting out on tour in the early 1960s, the men made little; the women, less. In 1968 — the beginning of the “Open Era,” in which professionals were admitted to the Grand Slam tournaments alongside amateurs — Wimbledon champion Rod Laver earned 2,000 pounds (roughly $33,638 in today’s money). In earning her third Wimbledon crown that year, King earned 750 pounds. ($17,627 today).

Two years later, she, Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz, Rosemary Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss would form the Virginia Slims tour, with backing from Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis magazine, and Joseph Cullman III, president of Philip Morris USA. Out of that tour grew the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Says King of her role:  “I had a vision for the sport and decided to go for it.”

But despite a higher profile and greater prize money, the respect for women’s tennis — with its eye-catching Ted Tinling tennis dresses — was still not there, particularly after rival and world No. 1 Margaret Court lost a match to flamboyant former world No. 1 and promoter Bobby Riggs, who was 25 years older than she. With the women’s movement at its height and Riggs grabbing the taunting headlines, King had little choice but to rise to the challenge, playing Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” winner-take-all $100,000 match that was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a sporting event.

King entered the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973, enthroned like Cleopatra on a feathered litter carried by four bare-chested “servants”; Riggs in a rickshaw pulled by skimpily clad models. He gave her a big Sugar Daddy. She presented him with a piglet (as in male chauvinist…). Some 90 million people worldwide — 50 million in America, glued to ABC-TV — saw a fit, 29-year-old King defeat Riggs in straight sets — 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. For viewers and their contemporaries, it would remain a touchstone — President Barack Obama would tell King that he watched the match as a 12-year-old — one that would be reimagined in the 2001 TV-movie “When Billie Beat Bobby,” starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver; the 2013 documentary “The Battle of the Sexes”; the 2017 feature “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell; and the recent One Year Lease Theater Co. production “Balls.”

What many do not know is the two had a respectful affection for each other.

Bobby, she writes, “acted like a true gentleman when the match was done, he behaved with integrity and he was a great sport.” King spoke with him often before his death from prostate cancer in 1995, including a phone call the night before he died in which the last thing she said to him was “I love you.”

King would recall this in a US Open interview in 2006, the year the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens was named for her. It was a professional highlight in a life of highlights, including 39 Grand Slam titles — 12 in women’s singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles, including a record 20 at Wimbledon.

 

The professional triumphs have been accompanied by personal pain. In the luncheon’s question-and-answer session with Fairfield County’s Community Foundation president and CEO Juanita T. James, King is candid about her lesbianism, which she discovered in 1968, and her inability to deal with it publicly for many years, in part because of her parents’ homophobia, which led to an eating disorder. She finally was able to talk with them about her sexuality in 1994. By then, she and Larry had been divorced seven years. (She is godmother to his son by a subsequent marriage.) And she had fallen in love with Ilana Kloss, her South African-born doubles partner. Today, they are business and life partners and a fit King is active in any number of gay-related issues. She’s on the board of the AIDS Foundation established by her friend, Elton John, who with lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” for her World TeamTennis organization, the Philadelphia Freedoms.

As the luncheon ends, the song comes up and King rises to lob balls into the standing, clapping audience as if she never left the court. 

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