There’s a problem with attempting to encapsulate the achievements of Billie Jean King: whatever you list, however you describe her, it sells her short. Her 12 Grand Slam singles titles have little to do with why Life magazine named her one of the 100 most significant Americans of the 20th century.
Consider instead, perhaps, that when Barack Obama awarded her the United States’s highest civilian honour in 2009, she received her Presidential Medal of Freedom in the company of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Stephen Hawking. “Tennis is a platform,” she said that day, “and I fight for everybody.”
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Now 74, this woman who was brought up in the Norman Rockwell tradition of 1950s America is not only one of the greatest tennis champions of all time, but a reformist whose relentless pursuit of a better deal for women brought equality to her sport, with a reach far beyond.
Obama declared that she has changed “how women everywhere see themselves”. Her professional rival Chris Evert calls her “the wisest human being I have ever known”. Elton John dedicated his hit Philadelphia Freedom to her. Charles M Schulz used his Peanuts cartoon to support the women’s movement after meeting her.
“I was always a leader even in school,” she says, shrugging the shoulders of a trademark boxy jacket. “It can be lonely sometimes. I’ve been afraid, scared. But I always embraced the responsibility. When I was picking teams as a kid, I would make sure the least able person was always picked early on, not last. I just hate injustice.”
This week sees the UK release of Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone portraying King in 1973 in her single most famous on-court victory. At 29, King had already won five of her six Wimbledon singles titles, and was a pioneer of the women’s professional tennis tour amid a resistant cultural landscape. Just that year, she had forced the US Open to give equal prize money for the first time (it would be another 34 years before Wimbledon followed suit).
Enter Bobby Riggs, former world number one and Wimbledon champion. His love for the spotlight saw him declare that women “belong in the bedroom and the kitchen”, and women’s tennis to be so inferior that even a 55-year-old such as himself could beat the top players.
He all but whitewashed the great Margaret Court (whose 24 Grand Slam titles are still unmatched), at which point King felt she must take him on. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win,” she says. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
If that sounds grandiose, remember she is speaking of a time when US women struggled to get a credit card without a husband or father as counter-signatory.
So while, in 2017 on the big screen, these events resemble a gaudy circus designed only for the benefit of marketing, in 1973 it was a social milestone, the effects of which are still felt today – and all because King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
“It sent a message,” she says, banging the table of her London hotel room for emphasis. “It was a woman in a man’s arena, so it drew an audience way beyond the norm. That visibility created a role model, which matters because if you can see it, you can be it.
“Ever since that match, women have told me it gave them confidence to ask for what they want and need, empowering them to go for it; and men have told me that their perspective on how to raise their daughters was changed, because they saw me beat Bobby Riggs. When I was with Barack Obama, he said to me: ‘I saw that match when I was 12, and it really shaped me in how I felt about raising my two girls.’
“This is why equal prize money matters, regardless of who plays three sets or five sets – because it’s the right thing. It’s about the message. Do women make equal money here in the UK? No. Are they respected equally? No. It’s about the respect. It’s indicative of an entire culture.”
Battle of the Sexes telescopes the real-life timeline in order to depict King’s first gay relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett while Billie Jean was married to sports promoter Larry King. It is a tender portrayal but, while the film’s epilogue announces that Billie Jean and Larry remained such friends after their eventual divorce that she was godmother to one of his children, it omits that Barnett sued her for “palimony” in 1981 in the first gay lawsuit of its kind, thus publicly outing her.
“I was not ready, and it was horrible,” says King. “A lot of gay people think it’s important to out others. Do not do it. It was a terrible time. She just wanted money. The judge called it basic extortion and Marilyn lost. It was never resolved between us because she committed suicide not too many years after I was outed. I never saw her again. I forgave her because it was the only way to go forward. If you don’t forgive, they own you.”
She laughs. “You can tell I’ve had lots of therapy, can’t you?”
She and Larry remained married until 1987, when she fell in love with her doubles partner, Ilana Kloss. “I was totally in love with Larry when I married him. Our divorce is why Ilana and I aren’t married after so long together, although I probably should. I’m gun-shy because I never want to go through anything like the sadness of my divorce again. But I’d like to protect her. That’s one of the things I’m wrangling with.
“It’s not as big a deal anymore for a player to come out. I don’t know of any male tennis player that has come out, although there have to be some that are gay. But only women players are asked about their sexuality. Men never are.”
Progress has been made, but some minds will never be changed. The film depicts Margaret Court’s open disgust about King’s relationship with Barnett. Almost half a century later, Court is minister of a church she founded herself and likens gay rights activism to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
“I’m from a conservative Methodist family, so I was very religious as a child,” responds Billie Jean, before quoting from the Sermon on the Mount. “‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ There’s a lot of judgment going on. I don’t like that, and I want the film to help. I hope it reaches somebody out there who is struggling, and tells people to be their authentic self. It took me until I was 51.”
Yet her authentic self was evident even at age five, at home in Long Beach, California. King smiles at the memory of herself, little Billie Jean Moffitt drying the dishes with her mother Betty. “I looked up at her and said, ‘Mom, I just know I’m going to do something great with my life.’ And mom replied, ‘That’s nice. Just keep doing the dishes.’”
Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas Friday 24th November