Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 43 / 23 October 2014
 
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Lifetime achiever

Sports

Tennis legend Billie Jean King honored


Billie Jean King acknowledges the crowd at the August 28 renaming ceremony of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open in New York City. Photo: Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA
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Billie Jean King has just received another honor – not a plaque or award, but an entire tennis center has been renamed after her. At the official ceremony, held August 28 on the first day of this year's U.S. Open, King was yet again recognized for her 40-plus-years' legacy in tennis and women's equality in sports with the naming of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York.

"I'm really happy that I can share this with everybody," said King, who was busy making plans for the tennis center's renaming ceremonies when we talked. "One thing is to stop and enjoy the moment with my family and with the world."

Many of the sport's greatest living legends were present at the ceremonies, as was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 13 U.S. Open championships. Playing at Wimbledon in 1962 at age 18, King won the doubles championship, the first of 20 Wimbledon titles she would eventually own. By 1967, King was the first woman in almost 30 years to take the triple crown of singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Even those who aren't tennis fans may remember her 1973 resounding defeat of Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" challenge match. At the time, the match was the most viewed sports event in television history, and drew the largest in-person attendance in tennis history – more than 30,000 – at the Houston Astrodome.

As one of the most prominent out lesbians in athletics, King acknowledges her prominence in gay history, but said an athlete's sexual orientation "should be a non-issue over time."

Citing French tennis champion Amelie Mauresmo, who won Wimbledon this year and who also is a lesbian, King said, "I think she's great. She didn't lose any endorsements when she came out.

"I think sports are wonderful for [visibility]," King added. "We can reach out and celebrate our differences. I'm thrilled as a woman and lesbian that this has happened."

Despite such advances, King still sees inequity in athletics. "Men in sports get about $25 billion, and women have $1 billion," she said. "Ninety percent of the media's run by men. When we get attention, it's in the men's arena."

This is part of why King founded the Women's Tennis Association in 1973 and the Women's Sports Foundation a year later. After retiring from tennis in 1984, King continued her work toward equal opportunity for women athletes.

A native of Long Beach, California, King, 62, credits her supportive family with helping her decide to become a great tennis player at a young age. "I think it was my destiny by age 11," she said.

King's father died earlier this year, and she remembers him fondly. "He was just so sweet to me and my dreams," she said. "He just totally got it. When I said I wanted to be the number one tennis player in the world, he said, 'Well, if this is what my daughter wants.' He treated his daughter's aspirations with the same encouragement as his son's." King's brother, Randy Moffitt, is a former Major League Baseball relief pitcher.

King has lived in New York for 30 years. Previously, she lived in Berkeley and San Mateo, where, in 1971, with her then-husband, Lawrence King (whom she married in 1965), she started an annual tournament now known as the Bank of the West Classic. "Not only was I playing, but I was worrying about court conditions, making sure there were enough towels."

Having created more tennis and sports opportunities for women, King is also aware of the possible excess in the number of tournaments and the effect on top-ranked players.

"We need to have less tournaments at the top level," she says. "Players need to be healthy. It's tough and extremely demanding. There are so many injuries."

Being in the sports-media spotlight for decades, King is also aware of the difference between the portrayal of male and female athletes. "The press tends to talk about women's injuries more than men's," she said. "It's very interesting. Sometimes people don't realize what they're portraying."

In the early 1980s, King's sexuality became front-page news when Marilyn Barnett, her former secretary and lover, sued her for palimony. Although King acknowledged the affair, the case was dismissed; King later divorced her husband and came out.

Since then, she's been honored by many LGBT organizations, including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Human Rights Campaign. On September 28, King will be honored with former NFL player Esera Tuaolo at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society's 22nd annual gala.

Of these numerous honors, King remains humble. "When I look at my own name [on the tennis center], I think of how lucky I've been, but also how if you dream big and go for it, hopefully other people will want to make a difference," she says. "It's the little things, the accumulation of doing the right thing day after day."

Her visibility as an out lesbian sports icon has had a great impact on fighting homophobia in sports. However, King said, "It's got to come from all levels," including at schools and universities. "The top athletes can help, because we get so much exposure. But I don't consider us the real sheroes and heroes. I find that at the community level.

"It's very important that people can have the freedom to live their lives," she said. "The more people know someone [gay] personally, it really does change how people think. The more comfortable people are, the better it gets. You're never going to have everyone on the same page, though. But the more younger people come out, the better. That's where the next great sheroes and heroes are."

Jim Provenzano is the guest curator of "Sporting Life: GLBT Athletics and Cultural Change from the 1960s to Today," the main exhibit at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society. To purchase tickets for the upcoming annual gala ($75 general admission, $150 VIP), visit www.glbthistory.org. Read more sports columns at www.sportscomplex.org.

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