Class of 1987
World No. 1 (1966)
Grand Slam Results
39-time major champion, 26-time finalist
Open Era Titles
Overall Record: 782-192
Singles Record: 695-155
Doubles Record: 87-37
Member of the U.S. Federation Cup Team 1963-1967, 1976-1979
Member of the U.S. Championship Federation Cup Team 1963, 1966-1967, 1976-1979
Captain of the U.S. Federation Cup Team 1965, 1976, 1995-1996, 1998-2003
Captain of the U.S. Championship Federation Cup Team 1976, 1996, 1999, 2000
Overall Record: 52-4
Singles Record: 26-3
Doubles Record: 26-1
Member of the U.S. Wightman Cup Team 1961-1967, 1970
Member of the U.S. Championship Wightman Cup Team 1961-1967, 1970
When it comes to selecting one memorable passage in the magnanimous career of Billie Jean King, which would you choose?
Fact is, those highlights are but a thumbnail listing in the extraordinary life of Billie Jean King – both on and off the court. The depth of what she accomplished as a player and activist makes choosing one singular milestone impossible. Cumulatively, there have been few who have had a greater impact on their sport than King. On March 2, 2015, CNN posted an article entitled “Leading Women,” which connected readers to “extraordinary women of our time, remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science, and more.” King was one of seven women profiled, along such immortals as author and anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer of Holocaust diary Anne Frank, and Rosalind Franklin, scientist that helped the understanding of DNA.
In the article, King was noted for her 39 major titles and, not surprisingly, her victory over Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match in 1973. What CNN focused on was the impact the Riggs match had for women’s equality as it played out before a worldwide television audience of 50 million. The facts that King helped form the Women’s Tennis Association and her tireless campaign for equal prize money for female players were also prominently cited.
There are two intertwined facets of King’s career – what she accomplished on the court as the third winningest female player in major tournament history and how her single-minded determination provided equal footing for not just women’s tennis players, but all women’s professional athletes. Outside of Margaret Court with 62 combined major championships and Martina Navratilova (59), no player in history won more majors than King (39). She won 12 singles titles, 16 women’s doubles and 11 mixed doubles champions. In 1990, Life magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” Not important sporting figures, important American figures. The only other sports figures recognized were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.
In the Open Era, King won eight major singles titles (7th best in history), appeared in 12 finals (9th), and 28 quarterfinals (9th). She won 129 singles titles, 62 as an amateur and 67 on the WTA Tour. If you roll back the clock and combine King’s amateur and professional career, the numbers paint a picture of extraordinary success, though it took seven years to become a masterpiece. King made her major debut at the U.S. Nationals in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1966 that she won her first major championship, defeating Maria Bueno in the Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
King played in 51 majors from 1959 through 1983, advancing to the semifinals 27 times and the quarterfinals 40 times. She advanced to a major singles final 18 times, appeared in 29 doubles championship matches and 18 mixed doubles title matches. King’s singles victory at the French Open in 1972 over Evonne Goolagong, 6-3, 6-3, which up until that point was the only major singles championship that had eluded her, enabled her to win a Career Grand Slam, one of only five women at that time to achieve the feat. King’s 1968 mixed doubles championship at the Australian added a Career Grand Slam in that category to her portfolio. Had she been able to win a women’s title in Melbourne (a finalist in 1965 and 1968), King would have won a Career Grand Slam in all three events.
King’s story has been one of the most widely reported among sport’s greatest athletes. At age 5, while washing dishes, she told her mother, “I am going to do something great with my life.”
And so she did.
In 2009 she became the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 1975, when her feverish major championship run ended, a readership poll in Seventeen magazine revealed that King was the most admired woman in the world. On New Year’s Day 1975, music icon Elton John released his No. 1 platinum hit “Philadelphia Freedom” in homage to his friend King and her World TeamTennis squad bearing same name. John was such a devout fan of that he would dress in the team’s uniform and sit on the bench during matches. King was a co-founder of World TeamTennis.
King was born Billie Jean Moffitt (she married lawyer Larry King in 1966) and raised in Long Beach, California. King was a local phenomenon, beginning her competitive play on Long Beach public courts before attending Long Beach Polytechnic High School and then California State University Los Angeles. The Moffitt family had plenty of athletic genes in the household, as brother Randy enjoyed an 11-year professional baseball career as a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, and Toronto Blue Jays. King herself was a stalwart softball player.
On August 7, 1960, King won her first tournament, defeating Carole Graebner at the Philadelphia and District Grass Court Championships in Philadelphia, 6-1, 6-0. She won her last on June 6, 1983 defeating Alycia Moulton, 6-0, 7-5 at the Edgbaston Cup in Birmingham, United Kingdom at age 39 years, 7 months, 23 days, then the oldest player on the WTA tour to win a title. In between, she would be the world No. 1 ranked player six times (1966-1968, 1971, 1972, 1974). Her 1971 season was spectacular, winning 17 of 31 tournaments and compiling a 112-13 record. When she defeated longtime doubles partner Rosie Casals, 7-5, 6-1, at the Virginia Slims Thunderbird Invitational in Phoenix, Arizona on September 27, 1971, King became the first women’s player in history to earn $100,000 in prize money in a calendar year. For a career, King earned $1,966,487.
King’s ascent on the record books, particularly the Wimbledon record books, began in 1961 as a 17-year-old. She teamed with Karen Hantze to win the Ladies Doubles Championship, 6-3, 6-4 over Aussies Jan Lehane and Court. That victory jumpstarted King’s 20 career titles in London – six coming in singles (1968, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975), ten in doubles (1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971-73, 1979) and four in mixed doubles (1967, 1971-74). She shares the record for most titles at Wimbledon with Martina Navratilova. In her six singles victories, King defeated Bueno (1966), Ann Haydon (1967), Judy Tegart (1968), Goolagong (1972, 1975), and Chris Evert (1973). King was a finalist in 1963, 1969, and 1970. Overall, King was 96-15 at Wimbledon (.865), 31-15 against seeded players, and never lost to an unseeded player (65-0).
She captured four U.S. Nationals/US Open titles, winning her first in 1967 over Jones, and three more after falling in the inaugural Open Era championship to Virginia Wade, 6-4, 6-2, in 1968. She defeated Casals in 1971, Kerry Melville in 1972, and Goolagong in 1974. Her lone Australian title came over Court in 1968. In her 12 major singles titles, King went three sets only twice, defeating Bueno for the 1966 Wimbledon title (6-3, 3-6, 6-1) and ousting Goolagong at the 1974 US Open (3-6, 6-3, 7-5).
There was not one area of King’s game that shined more than any other. She was as complete an all-court player as the women’s game has ever seen. She played aggressively, hit her ground strokes with a purpose, and was a tenacious net player. Her court speed was exceptional, and her competitiveness was the edge that earned her a 695-155 (82 percent) record in singles and an 87-37 mark in doubles. She’s the only woman in history to win U.S. singles title on all four surfaces it has been played on – grass, carpet, clay, and hard court.
King’s all-court game made her an ideal doubles partner. Ten women’s doubles titles came at Wimbledon, five at the U.S. Nationals/US Open (1964, 1967, 1974, 1978, 1980), and one at the French (1972). She was a finalist twice in Australia (1965, 1969). Seven of her 16 titles came alongside fiery Casals, including three in New York, where King was a finalist seven times. In mixed doubles, King won four times at Wimbledon (1967, 1971, 1973, 1974), four times at the U.S. Nationals/US Open (1967, 1971, 1973, 1976), twice at the French (1967, 1970), and once at the Australian (1968). She teamed with Aussie Owen Davidson to win eight of her 11 titles, four coming at Wimbledon.
With the advent of the Open Era in 1968, King embarked on two of the three critical crusades that would define her career. In 1970, she was one of nine female tennis players, with steering from World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, who sought to reduce the vast differences in prize money between male and female players. The result of their efforts was the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit, sponsored by fellow Hall of Famer and Phillip Morris Chairman Joe Cullman, which later became the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The nine players each signed a $1 dollar contract and embraced the catchy slogan “You’ve Come A Long Way Baby.”
Her second bold statement came after she had won the 1972 US Open and had the bittersweet taste that her purse was $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Năstase. King emphatically proclaimed that if the prize money wasn’t equal the following year, she wouldn’t play and eluded that other women’s players would follow. In 1973 the US Open became the first of the four majors to have equal prize money for the men’s and women’s champions. It took courage and conviction to take such a stand. Seventeen years later, King would be the recipient of the 1999 Arthur Ashe Courage Award – her conviction as a risk taker and lobbyist for equality a major factor in her selection.
The third and perhaps most significant watershed moment in King’s life came on September 20, 1973 in the famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs. King, then 29, was cajoled into playing the hustler Riggs, who won the 1939 Wimbledon Gentleman Singles championship. King was seeking atonement for Riggs’s ambushing Margaret Court in the famous “Mother’s Day Massacre” 6-2, 6-1. Riggs hounded King with a $100,000 winner-take-all purse. Following his easy victory over Court, Riggs was overly cocky in preparing for King. He spent more time generating publicity and spouting off unfavorable comments directed toward women than he did training (Riggs trained much harder against Court). He appeared in photo shoots as Henry VIII, played a pre-King match in drag, and treated the whole event as though it was a Las Vegas comedy act based on tasteless one-liners. He rarely stepped on a court, and as a result was woefully out of shape and ironically unprepared when the match was played in the Houston Astrodome. King, meanwhile, was 36 years younger than Riggs and in the prime of her career. She trained relentlessly. Despite the differing preparations toward playing “The Battle of the Sexes,” legendary odds maker Jimmy the Greek tabbed Riggs a 5-2 favorite to win.
Riggs rode into the Astrodome in a gilded rickshaw pulled by a bevy of beautiful women. King entered the proceedings like Cleopatra, atop a gold litter held up by toga-wearing members of the Rice University men’s track team. She wore a specially-designed dress created by Ted Tinling, actually a backup option to the first that didn’t feel right to King. It was a menthol-green and sky blue outfit that King said “felt absolutely perfect when I put it on.” With Howard Cosell announcing, a record crowd of 30,492 spectators in attendance and a reported 50 million glued to their television sets, King dominated the match from the first point, quieting Riggs with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory. Years later, Riggs and Kings became friends, the remnants of Riggs’s pre-match hyperbole about women and their place in society forgiven. It was reported that the two spoke a few days before Riggs died of prostate cancer in 1995.
King was a member of seven winning Fed Cup teams in 1963, 1966, 1967, and 1976 through 1979. She compiled a 52-4 mark (26-3 in singles, 26-1 in doubles) and won her last 30 straight matches. King captained the team to four victories in 1976 (when she was a player-captain), 1996, 1999, and 2000. She was honored with the Fed Cup Award of Excellence in 2010.
Throughout her career, the number of accolades, honors and tributes King has received are in the dozens. A few notable: In 1977, she was named by Harper’s Bazaar Magazine as one of the “ten most powerful women in America.” She was an Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year selection in 1967 and 1973 and Sports Illustrated called her “probably the most influential athlete of her time.”
King has been tennis’s most outspoken advocate on women’s rights, considered the figure most responsible for the growth of tennis in the United States and one of the sport’s most colorful and controversial players. She has been widely considered as the role model for the 1972 passage of Title IX, which states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Writing in Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford penned, “She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise. Moreover, like (Arnold) Palmer, she had made a whole sports boom because of the singular force of her presence.”
In 1974 she wrote her autobiography, Billie Jean.
Australian Championships: W 1968
French Open: W 1972
Wimbledon: W 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975
U.S. Nationals/US Open: W 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974
Australian Championships/Open: F 1965, 1969
French Open: W 1972
Wimbledon: W 1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1979
U.S. Nationals/US Open: W 1964, 1967, 1974, 1978, 1980
Australian Championships: W 1968
French Championships/Open: W 1967, 1970
Wimbledon: W 1967, 1971, 1973, 1974
U.S. Nationals/US Open: W 1967, 1971, 1973, 1976