Standing in the kitchen of her family home in Long Beach, Calif., 5-year old Billie Jean Moffitt was drying a plate her mother had just washed. Finishing the chore, she looked up at her mother and with all the passion, determination and precociousness of a strong-willed young girl, blurted out, “Mom, I just know I’m going to do something great with my life.”
“That’s nice,” Betty Moffitt said. “Just keep drying the dishes.”
The young girl, who one day would be known to the world as Billie Jean King, grabbed the next plate, wiped it dry, then put the dishes away before heading to her room.
And over the next 60 years, she proved her prediction right.
“I do not have a clue what brought me to that special moment, and I have to tell you that, looking back, it was a little weird, but it was definitely one of those life-changing moments,” King tells SUCCESS. “I remember it vividly all these years later. It was definitely a strong feeling that has stayed with me my entire life.”
The feeling took greater shape when 11-year-old Billie Jean was dropped off at Long Beach’s Houghton Park where she had signed up for a free tennis lesson, her first real experience with the game that would make her famous. When her mother came to pick her up, Billie Jean announced: “Mom, I’ve found what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Betty Moffitt reminded her daughter that she had homework to complete first.
King’s résumé as one of the world’s greatest tennis players would serve as proof that she understood her future, even as a child. She was ranked as the world’s No. 1 player seven times between 1966 and 1974. She won 20 titles at Wimbledon, 13 at the U.S. Open, and also carried home trophies from both the French and Australian Opens. Twice, she was named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, and in 1971 she became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000. The next year, she became the first woman and first tennis player to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
She even was victorious in one of the most famous tennis matches when, in 1973, she defeated self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised “Battle of the Sexes” event that was watched by 90 million people. That win, King says, created opportunities for her and others that would never have occurred if she had passed on the moment. “More than 35 years later, I still get women and men who come up to me and offer congratulations and thanks, and let me know if they won or lost bets with friends and family,” King says with a laugh. “I also get a number of men—who are now fathers of daughters—who tell me they are making sure their daughters have the same opportunities in their lives as their sons.”
“I didn’t do it for women’s tennis; I did it for tennis.”
Tennis historians credit the King-Riggs match with creating an explosion of interest in the sport, claiming that by the mid-1970s, 32 million Americans were playing the game, an all-time high.
But for King, all of those rankings, records and wins pale in comparison to the role of social activist they allowed her to play. As she and other high-profile female athletes continued to make headlines, they were able to collectively push for the 1972 passage of Title IX, the ground-breaking legislation that paved the way for equal opportunities for women in collegiate and high-school sports.
“I was just one of many who worked to secure the passage of this very important educational amendment and one of many who fight to protect it today,” King says with understated pride. When the bill became law, many praised the young tennis phenom by name for her willingness to press for its passage.
She also led the crusade to guarantee women equal prize money at major tennis tournaments. Her confrontation with the tennis elite began after she won the 1972 U.S. Open and noted her check was substantially less than the one for Ilie Nastase, who won the men’s draw. While thanking the Open’s sponsors, she promised to boycott the next year’s tournament if women couldn’t be paid equally. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to women. The clash led to her long-running battle with the leaders at the All England Club, host of Wimbledon, which announced in 2007 that it would become the last major tournament to begin paying both genders equally.
“Most often, those who opposed equal prize money felt the men played longer, and I always thought that did not make sense,” King says, referring to men’s matches of 3 sets out of 5 versus 2 out of 3 with the women. “First of all, no one asked us to play 3 out of 5, and I certainly would have—just like I did against Bobby Riggs. But I think people have to look at the overall entertainment value. The real value is in the entertainment aspect, not the length of the match. I see it very similar to a concert. Elton John does not get paid by the hour. It doesn’t matter whether he plays for one hour or four, he gets paid. Period.”
Despite all that, King blanches at the thought that her life’s mission is to better the world for women. “I want people to know that everything I do is for both genders,” she says. “I am committed to that. It always surprises me that people will say to me, ‘Thank you for what you have done for women’s tennis.’ I am very appreciative of their comments, but I didn’t do it for women’s tennis; I did it for tennis. The women of my generation who are making a difference in the lives of others are impacting all people, not just women. We are doing what we do for everyone, not just 51 percent of the population.”
Still, she says she is disappointed that, for all the efforts made over the last three decades, women’s sports are not further along. “Even with all of the progress we have made over the years—and there has been progress—there is still a significant gap between the amount of money committed to sponsorships for men’s sports and the much smaller amount women’s sports receive,” King says.
“In order for things to change, several things need to take place,” she says. “First of all, women need to support women’s sports. We need to be buying season tickets, attending events and actually supporting women’s sports rather than just talking about it. We also need to gain broader support for women’s sports, and part of that is making sure our product has strong value—both from a competitive position and from an entertainment aspect. Women’s tennis is a good model for success in the sports arena. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is doing very well with sponsorships, creating global events and providing an entertaining and very competitive product. Others should look at what is happening with women’s tennis as a good example of what we can do.”
Though she retired from playing competitive singles tennis in 1983 and doubles in 1990, King has been anything but retired. She has written eight books, received honorary degrees from several universities, been named a Global Mentor for Gender Equity by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and, in 2006, was honored when the United States Tennis Association renamed the venue that hosts the U.S. Open as the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Today, she is more visible than ever, preparing to host the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup, an HBO-sponsored event in Madison Square Garden with four of the world’s top women players competing for a substantial prize pool. She continues her involvement in World Team Tennis, the coed professional tennis league she founded in 1974 and led as commissioner for many years. King even now stars in her own commercial for GEICO.
All of this has come her way, King believes, because Americans are increasingly aware of the struggles that have helped shape our culture. “I am also pleased with our nation’s renewed interest in history. As I have long said, the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself,” she says.
“If you look at this country, many, many people are working hard to connect the generations. There is an appreciation for what those who have come before us have done, what we are doing now and where those who come after us will take us. I think things go in cycles. Our generation definitely has a connection to today’s younger generation. We recognize that they are our future, and we want to help them make things better.”
Don Yaeger is a four-time New York Times best-selling author, former longtime Sports Illustrated writer and award-winning motivational speaker.