(b. 22 November 1943 in Long Beach, California), tennis player who became a symbol of American feminism through her "Battle of the Sexes" match with Bobby Riggs, her advocacy of women's sports, and her push for gender equity.
King was the only daughter and the older of the two children of Willis B. Moffit, an engineer with the Long Beach fire department, and Betty Jerman Moffit, who worked as a medical receptionist. The family lived modestly during King's childhood. Randall "Randy" Moffit, her brother, later pitched in the major leagues for the San Francisco Giants.
King was a natural athlete from the start, and began playing tennis at age eleven; she quickly developed a passion for the sport on the public courts of Long Beach. Coached by tennis great Alice Marble, who called her student "short, fat, and aggressive," King perfected an attacking style that became her trademark. From the outset of her career, she chafed at the aristocratic side of tennis; "I was always uncomfortable in snooty private clubs," she said later. She won her first tournament at age fourteen. In 1961 at age eighteen, she and her partner, Karen Hantze, won the Wimbledon doubles title; they repeated the feat in 1962. While her tennis career soared, she attended Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences from 1961 to 1966. She married Larry W. King on 17 September 1965. By that time her success on the court had made her the number-one-ranked woman player in the United States. At five feet, four-and-a-half inches in height, she contended with uncertain knees that several times required surgery.
In 1966 King won the first of six Wimbledon singles titles; she successfully defended her title a year later. She also won the U.S. Open in 1967. During the next decade and a half, King won seventy-two tournaments and earned nearly $2 million in prize money. Along the way, she racked up many groundbreaking accolades: in 1971 she was the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in a single year; in 1973 she became the first woman named as Sports Illustrated 's "Sportsperson of the Year"; and in 1976 Time magazine named her "Woman of the Year." In the early 1970s she founded several businesses to advance her personal interests: a practice called "team tennis," in which local franchises compete against one another in an arena setting; WomenSports magazine (now Women's Sports and Fitness magazine), cofounded with her husband in 1974; and a women's professional softball league in 1975, using her tennis earnings to sponsor a franchise.
In 1975 King announced a partial retirement from professional tennis (due to knee problems) in order to take a position as sports commentator on the ABC television network. King retired from competitive tennis in 1984 as one of the preeminent women to ever play the sport. During her career, she secured a dozen Grand Slam singles titles and amassed twenty Wimbledon crowns in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Her slashing approach to the game, her constant verbal exhortations to herself, and her dogged will to win made her a crowd favorite. Always concerned with issues of equity for women players, King was a founding member of the Women's Tennis Association and presided over the organization from 1973 to 1975 and 1980 to 1981.
The event that made Billie Jean King a world figure was her celebrated match with self-proclaimed tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome on 20 September 1973 before 31,000 fans and a worldwide television audience of 40 million. Riggs had beaten another excellent woman player, Margaret Smith Court, early in the year, and he boasted that at age fifty-five he could defeat any of the top-ranked women in tennis. "No broad can beat me," Riggs said. Billie Jean King accepted the challenge and proved him wrong. In a circus-like atmosphere that included her being carried in on a litter by four muscular men, King won an easy three-set victory, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. The aging Riggs was outclassed in every phase of the game by the athletic King, and after the opening moments it was clear that Riggs had no weapons that could dent Billie Jean's superiority. The blowout triumph established King as one of the most famous athletes in the world. It also signaled a greater acceptance of women in sports and came to be seen as one of the shaping events for the emergence of feminism in the 1970s. As King observed in 1998, "that wasn't about tennis, it was about social change."
King's personal life kept her in the headlines. In 1972 she revealed that she had had an abortion in 1971, lest motherhood interfere with her career. Behind the scenes, her marriage was in trouble, and she had embarked on a romantic affair with Marilyn Barnett, a Beverly Hills hair-dresser who later became King's personal assistant. The liaison ended in 1974, and in 1981 Barnett sued King for expenses and a house they had shared during their relationship. King admitted the affair but did not acknowledge that she was gay. The highly publicized "galimony" suit cost King an estimated $1.5 million in lost advertising endorsements and stereotyped her as a lesbian in much of American society. She and Larry King were divorced in the late 1980s once the suit had been resolved.
Another controversial aspect of King's career was her personal and financial involvement with the tobacco brands, such as Virginia Slims and its parent company, Phillip Morris, which sponsored women's tennis in the 1970s and 1980s. Appreciative of the monetary backing that sustained her profession, King accepted money for her promotional work for the companies and defended them against charges that cigarettes were dangerous to the health of everyone. When criticized for this stance in 1993, she responded that "we are proud of our relationship with an enlightened company like Philip Morris."
In the late 1990s King "came out" publicly about her status as a gay athlete and lent her prestige to "gay pride" events. She remained active as the coach of the U.S. Olympic Team and the American team in the Federation Cup competition; was inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1990; and became involved with "Discovery Zone," indoor planned play centers for children, as part of her goal of advocating coeducational team sports. Because of her impact on tennis and her drive to promote gender equity, King is a landmark figure in twentieth-century American sports. Still, she recognizes the controversies that have marked her sporting career, and she sums up her life in and out of tennis simply: "People don't feel safe with people who stretch them."
King's autobiography Billie Jean, with Kim Chapin (1974), is an account of her early career; a later autobiography, Billie Jean, with Frank Deford (1982), delves more into her personal life after the 1981 lawsuit. King also wrote Tennis to Win, with Kim Chapin (1970), an instructional book, and We HAVE Come a Long Way: The Story of Women's Tennis, with Cynthia Starr (1988), which is often revealing about its author. See also King, "Woman Tennis Pros Are Not 'Being Used' to Promote Smoking," New York Times (2 Dec. 1993). Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989), and Alice Marble with Dale Leatherman, Courting Danger (1991), have insights into King's development. Useful articles about King include Mark Asher, "Tennis Ace Billie Jean King Reveals She Had Abortion," Philadelphia Inquirer (23 Feb. 1972); Anna Quindlen, "Billie Jean King Talks Comeback and Other Battles," New York Times (9 Jan. 1978); Neil Amdur, "Mrs. King Offers to Quit as W.T.A. Head, So Not to Hurt Players," New York Times (3 May 1981); and Robert Lipsyte, "Helping Others Before Helping Herself," New York Times (12 July 1998). King discussed her sexuality in an interview with The Advocate (18 Aug. 1998). The ABC network aired a made-for-television movie, "When Billie Beat Bobby," starring Holly Hunter as King (16 Apr. 2001).