Billie Jean King gets official recognition as agent of change

On Aug. 12, tennis legend Billie Jean King was duly recognized for her role as a game-changer of history.

This is the day President Obama bestowed on her the Medal of Freedom.

During King’s best playing years — from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s — tennis was the biggest venue for women’s sports. And Wimbledon was, without a doubt, the biggest stage and the most sacred institution of tennis.

Wimbledon was not, however, a bastion of feminism.

Female players like Billie Jean King were required to curtsy in all-white miniskirted outfits. Even more archaically, the names of married women were referenced on the scoreboard by the first and last names of their husbands — in Billie Jean’s case: Mrs. L. King.

Yet this was the place that launched King into the global spotlight, and ultimately gave birth to one of the most public pioneers of gay rights, feminism, pay equity and social justice.

Billie Jean King wasn’t the most physically gifted athlete, but her fluid and graceful serve-and-volley style — a lost art in today’s power game — was mesmerizing to watch.

Her most formidable weapon wasn’t a serve or drop shot, however. King possessed a deeply confident and strategic mind, matched by a commitment to excellence that eventually won her 39 grand slam titles, including a record 20 at Wimbledon.

That would be enough of a legacy for some, but King’s most memorable battles were not fought on the tennis court. She lived as an out lesbian before it was remotely fashionable to do so.

She fought for equal pay for women athletes, and by extension, women in general.

She and eight other players broke away from the tennis establishment, and under King’s leadership, the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour and the Women’s Tennis Association were born.

Most famously, King beat down a larger-than-life symbol of sexism, or what we referred to then as a male chauvinist pig who went by the name of Bobby Riggs.

The 55-year-old Riggs loudly argued — and many agreed — that women athletes were so inferior that he would have no trouble beating the top-ranked female tennis player. Needless to say, the early 1970s were a time when the notion that women should remain subordinate to men was a popular belief. But after weeks of hype, and in front of more than 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and a global television audience estimated at 50 million, King picked Riggs apart and beat him in three straight sets in what became known as the 1973 Battle of the Sexes.

Once her tennis playing days were over, King continued to be an icon of lesbian and women’s equality. She mentored countless women athletes who came after her, including Martina Navratilova and Venus and Serena Williams. She also counseled members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, who 10 years ago were the biggest story in sports as they pursued — and won — the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

As King gets older, the appreciation for her importance seems to grow deeper. She is the first woman to have a major sports facility named in her honor: the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Life magazine named her one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. And this week, along with Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sidney Poitier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Harvey Milk (posthumously), she won the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

She earned it. Billie Jean King is a living legend who has advanced the cause of equality and freedom not only in this country but around the world.

Andrea Lewis is the host and producer of “Sunday Sedition” on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif., and a Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow, Class of 2008. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.