Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Cyan. Cyan Wonders, “Who is Billie Jean King” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Cyan!
Professional athletes are some of the biggest celebrities in the world. Many of them use their fame to make a difference on issues that matter to them. Today’s Wonder of the Day is about one athlete who did just that. Who are we talking about? Billie Jean King!
Who is Billie Jean King? She was born Billie Jean Moffitt on November 22, 1943. King grew up in Long Beach, California, in a family full of athletes. Her father, who worked as a firefighter, had once tried out for a professional basketball team. Her mother was an athletic swimmer. King’s brother even pitched for several Major League Baseball teams.
As a kid, King played basketball and softball. When a friend introduced her to tennis, King knew it was the sport for her. Right away, she made it her goal to become the top tennis player in the world. King trained hard—and it paid off. Before long, she was winning youth tournaments across California.
Billie Jean King began playing tennis professionally in 1959. She was coached by Alice Marble, a tennis great. In 1961, King began attending California State University. While in college, she continued to play in tournaments and even coached younger players. In 1965, she married a law student named Larry King.
King’s first major win was at the 1961 Wimbledon. There, she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest team to ever win the doubles tournament. But King didn’t stop there.
Between 1961 and 1983, King won 39 Open tournaments. She achieved 12 singles Grand Slams. In tennis, a Grand Slam is when a player wins all of the major Open tournaments in one year (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open, and French Open).
Throughout her career, King spoke against gender discrimination on the court. In 1972, after winning the U.S. Open, she pointed out that the tournament awarded the women’s champion far less money than the men’s. King vowed not to play in the tournament again until it agreed to pay both winners equally. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to do so.
Also in 1973, Billie Jean King helped form the Women’s Tennis Association. She became the organization’s first president. That same year, she accepted a challenge from male tennis player Bobby Riggs to play against him in The Battle of the Sexes. This was a series of tennis matches in which Riggs played against women. He hoped to prove that men were superior to women in sports.
However, King would prove Riggs wrong. On September 20, 1973, she beat Riggs in a televised match watched by 90 million viewers. It was the most watched tennis match of all time—and, as of 2022, it still is.
Still, King continued to face discrimination. In 1981, she came out publicly as gay. As a result, every single organization that had endorsed her dropped their deal. She and Larry King also divorced but stayed close friends. King continued to play and became an outspoken advocate for equality for women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
King earned many awards and recognitions over the course of her career. Sports Illustrated named her its Sportsperson of the Year in 1972. She was the first tennis player and the first woman to receive the title. In 1987, King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She received the Medal of Freedom in 2009. In 2021, King was given the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award for her leadership and work in philanthropy.
Today, Billie Jean King continues to inspire tennis players around the world. She has written several books, including “All In” and “Pressure Is a Privilege.” King lives in New York City and Chicago with her spouse, Ilana Kloss.
Do you dream of becoming a tennis star like Billie Jean King? What goals would you work toward as an athlete?
Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3