Billie Jean King looks on during a women's doubles semifinal match at the 2021 Akron WTA Finals on Nov. 16, 2021 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Billie Jean King was at the height of her tennis career, and yet to achieve her greatest goals, she knew she needed to do something more.
So on Sept. 20, 1973, the in-her-prime King played Bobby Riggs, a self-described male chauvinist and former Grand Slam singles champion, in a televised primetime event at the Houston Astrodome. A major spectacle that was marketed as proof that men were the superior athletes, the showdown drew an unprecedented 90 million viewers. And King, then 29 and already the owner of 10 major women’s titles, delivered.
Her “Battle of the Sexes” defeat of the 55-year-old Riggs — 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 — might not have counted in any record books, but it remains an most iconic moment in the growth and acceptance of women’s sports.
“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King noted later. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
That match marked another giant step in King’s lifelong journey to achieve gender equality through sports. Yet it was just one of many important milestones in a career filled with them.
For her many accomplishments on and off the tennis court, King will be inducted Friday into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Fittingly, she becomes the first woman to enter in the “special contributor” category amid 50th anniversary celebrations of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools or other educational programs that receive federal funds.
“I am honored to be among such esteemed company in the #TeamUSAHOF, Class of 2022,” King tweeted after her induction was announced.
Perhaps lost amid her decades of advocacy for women’s sports, gay rights and other social justice causes is that King got her start as one of the most successful and influential tennis players of the 1960s and 1970s. As one of the first generation of players in the sport’s Open Era, when the Grand Slam tournaments began allowing professional players, King racked up 39 major singles and doubles titles in her career, including 20 at Wimbledon.
Even in her prime, though, King was already making an impact off the court.
Her “Battle of the Sexes” came in the same year she won his fifth Wimbledon singles title. A year later, in 1974, she helped founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, which continues to advocate for women’s sports. King was also a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the World TeamTennis league, and a leader in various efforts to improve pay for women.
Later, after being outed as being gay — making her the most prominent out athlete at a time when that was practically unheard of, much less broadly accepted — King leaned in to become a leader in pushing for LGBTQ+ rights, too.
Even now, at 78, King continues to be a leader, mentoring a new generation of women who are continuing the same battles she has been fighting for decades.
Although King never played in the Olympic Games, her connection to the movement runs deep.
As the coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s tennis teams in 1996 and 2000, King guided the Americans to four gold medals and a bronze medal. More recently King, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009, was selected to join the U.S. delegation for the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. She told the Associated Press at the time that she didn’t hesitate at all despite Russia’s anti-gay law.
“It sends a strong message that America is very diverse,” King, who ultimately was unable to attend, citing her mother’s failing health, told the AP. “We are here, and surrogates as athletes and gay athletes. We reflect part of America. Maybe we’ll be a voice for people who don’t feel they can be a voice yet.”