x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The legacy of King

Billie Jean King reaches 65 years of age today. Even now she has influence in the sport that she was responsible for turning into a multi-million dollar industry.

Billie Jean King in action at Wimbledon. She was remarkable on the grass courts where she won 20 titles.
Billie Jean King in action at Wimbledon. She was remarkable on the grass courts where she won 20 titles.

Billie Jean King won 20 Wimbledon titles (a record she shares with her close friend Martina Navratilova), was the only woman athlete included on Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century and was responsible for transforming women's tennis into a multi-million dollar industry. Sixty-five tomorrow, it was at the age of 17 as Miss B.J. Moffitt that she first appeared before us at Wimbledon in 1961; all dustbin-lid spectacles, histrionics, muttered imprecations and American imperiousness, she was an immediate object of scorn.

The great British sporting public has always given its collective heart to gallant losers and here was a born winner who would go on to claim six singles, four mixed and 10 women's doubles titles in a remarkable career spanning three tennis generations. In 1966 she defeated Maria Bueno for the first of her singles crowns, throughout the seventies she battled Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong and Navratilova, and in 1983 she was still out there on the Centre Court at the age of 39 trading blows with the teenage Andrea Jaeger in the semi-finals.

In contrast to the lack of warmth she was shown at Wimbledon in the early years, King has always inspired universal affection throughout tennis for her generosity of spirit, humour, modesty and ceaseless campaigning for women's equality and human rights as an impassioned champion of the underdog. The daughter of a southern Californian fireman, Little Miss Moffitt preferred football and baseball as a child and only turned to tennis when a school friend handed down an unwanted racket; an aunt came up with the money for a pair of sneakers, and Betty Moffitt, who had always made her daughter's clothes, fashioned a pair of shorts from old cotton bedspread.

The sight of this apparition left the snooty patrons of the Los Angeles Tennis Club shell-shocked. They could not have been more horrified had a Martian sashayed through the gates in a white tennis frock carrying three initialled balls in a string bag. King was forbidden to appear in the club's annual photograph. "I looked at those people in the club and thought, 'who cares'? I was hooked on tennis by then and I knew, just knew, I was going to be a champion," she says.

Having achieved just that, King went in search of further injustices to right. Encouraged by a small group of like-minded revolutionaries, she championed the cause of sexual equality on the tennis court by arguing, bullying and blackmailing officials into recognising women as full-time professionals just as men were. The decisive event was the 1973 Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs, 55, Wimbledon champion of 1939 and entrenched male chauvinist. Played before a crowd of 30,000 in the Houston Astrodome and a live television audience of 50 million, women's tennis might never have been taken seriously again if Riggs had won. Instead, news of King's straight-sets victory appeared on the front page of the usually staid Los Angeles Times.

Responsible for making multi-millionaires out of Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters and their ilk, when she was one of only four sports personalities named in Time's list alongside Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson (the first black to play Major League baseball), King edged out every American president since 1900. Evert calls her the First Lady, Navratilova speaks of La Legende, while dress designer Ted Tinling designed the perfect description: Madame Superstar.

King is still battling for good causes. mostly in support of under-privileged and handicapped children, on whose behalf she unashamedly seeks backing from close friends such Elton John, Steven Speilberg and John McEnroe. " I have a lot of future battles planned," she says. Happy 65th Madame Superstar. rphilip@thenational.ae