Tennis legend Billie Jean King honored
Billie Jean King received another honor not a plaque or award, but an entire tennis center. At the official ceremony, held Aug. 28 on the first day of this year’s U.S. Open, King was recognized for her 40-plus-years’ legacy in tennis with the naming of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.
“I’m really happy that I can share this with everybody,” says King, who was busy making plans for the center’s reopening ceremonies when we talked. “One thing is to stop and enjoy the moment with my family and with the world.”
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, she 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. At the time, the match was the most viewed sports event in television history. Played at the Houston Astrodome, it drew the largest in-person attendance in tennis history more than 30,000.
As one of the most prominent out lesbians in athletics, King acknowledges her prominence in gay history, but says an athlete’s sexual orientation “should be a non-issue over time.”
That may already be true. Look at French tennis champ Amelie Mauresmo, also a lesbian.
“She didn’t lose any endorsements when she came out,” King says.
Although some things have improved, King still sees inequity in athletics.
“Men in sports get about $25 billion, and women have $1 billion,” she says.
“Ninety percent of the media’s run by men. When we get attention, it’s in the men’s arena.”
This is partly 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, Calif., King, 62, credits her 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 remembers.
Earlier this year, King’s father died.
“He was just so sweet to me and my dreams,” she says. “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. She previously 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 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 says. “It’s very interesting. Sometimes people don’t realize what they’re portraying.”
In the early ’80s, King’s sexuality became headline 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 Sept. 28, King will be honored with former NFL player Esera Tuaolo at San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society’s 22 annual gala.
Of her 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.
Her visibility as a lesbian sports icon has helped fight homophobia in sports. However, King says, “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,” she continues. “It’s very important that people can have the freedom to live their lives. 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.”
MARTINA GOES OUT WITH A GRAND SLAM
A month shy of her 50th birthday, Martina Navratilova closed out her competitive career in fitting fashion: a mixed doubles championship at the U.S. Open for her 59th Grand Slam title on Sept. 9.
Navratilova teamed with American Bob Bryan to beat Kueta Peschke and Martin Damm 6-2, 6-3 before an appreciative crowd that cheered throughout the final game.
Even after playing for over a generation, Navratilova’s enthusiasm remained as strong as ever. The U.S. Open title is her 16th victory overall at Flushing Meadows. She has also won four singles and nine doubles titles there.
WHEELS OF FORTUNE
This weekend, the annual Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS hops into gear. Guests who wake up early enough on Saturday morning are welcome to cheer on riders and crew. The fun all begins in Oak Cliff at Hillcrest House, 834 N. Marsalis.
Sept. 23: Final registration and breakfast at 6 a.m. Opening Ceremonies at 6:30 a.m. Ride out at 7 a.m.
This year, organizers wanted to ensure that everyone succeeds. The 140-mile ride was designed to challenge, but not overwhelm. Organizers made the route scenic and included frequent pit stops to make the ride suitable even for novices.
But for true road warriors, an optional “Century Loop” was added to test their mettle. A one-day ride option was also made available.
Guests are also welcome to attend Closing Ceremonies and ride procession on Sunday in Fort Worth, which will include live music, at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St. from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
For addition information, call 214-521-2412 or visit LoneStarRide.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 22, 2006.