Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943 in Long Beach, California to parents Bill, a firefighter, and Betty, a homemaker.
The Moffitt family was athletic. Bill earned a tryout for an NBA team before becoming a firefighter and Betty was an accomplished swimmer. Billie Jean’s brother Randy, born in 1948, pitched for 11 years for several Major League Baseball teams: San Francisco Giants (1972-1981), Houston Astros (1982), and the Toronto Blue Jays (1983.)
Billie Jean’s first sport was basketball. She then began to play softball, and as a 10-year-old, played shortstop on a 14U team that won the city championship.
As she entered fifth grade, she asked her father what sports she could play to continue to achieve success. Her father mentioned tennis, and shortly afterward, Billie Jean was introduced to the sport by her friend, Susan Williams. Susan took her to a country club, where Billie Jean played for the first time. From the moment she put the racquet on the ball, Billie Jean knew what she wanted to do with her life. She began to play on Long Beach’s public courts using a racquet she purchased herself with money earned from odd jobs.
The young athlete set the bar high for her tennis game. “I am going to be No. 1 in the world,” Billie Jean told her mother. She soon realized, though, that the standards for young women playing the game were different than those for young men.
While participating in a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club in 1955, Billie Jean was barred from a group picture of junior tennis players because she wore the tennis shorts her mother made her instead of the tennis dress traditionally worn by female athletes. She took this injustice and used it as fuel to power both her game and her future social advocacy.
Billie Jean emerged as a talent to watch when in 1958, she won her age bracket in the Southern California championship. In 1959, Billie Jean turned pro, and former women’s tennis great Alice Marble became her coach. She attended California State University, Los Angeles from 1961 to 1964, and continued to compete in tournaments while also working as a tennis instructor. She married law student Larry King in 1965.
In 1961, Billie Jean gained international recognition for the first time when she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title.
Soon after, Billie Jean began an intense training regimen so she could maximize her potential.
Her efforts paid off in 1966, when she won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon. She followed up with repeat wins in 1967 and 1968. To these accomplishments, she added her first U.S. Open singles championship in 1967 and the Australian Open singles title the following year.
In 1966, Billie Jean King achieved the goal she set for herself as a young girl when she was ranked #1 in the world in women’s tennis. She held the #1 ranking for five additional years (1967-1968, 1971-1972, and 1974).
Between 1961 and 1979, Billie Jean won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 United States titles (including four singles), four French titles (one singles), and two Australian titles (one singles) for a total of 39 Grand Slam titles. In 1972, she won the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon to claim three Grand Slam titles in one year.
Known for her lightning-fast speed, forceful net game, and fierce backhand, Billie Jean’s tennis championship titles are only half her story.
Off the court, Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money in the men’s and women’s games. In 1970, she joined the Virginia Slims Tour for women, and in 1971, King became the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money. Yet when she won the U.S. Open in 1972, she received $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Năstase.
In 1973, at the height of her competitive years, Billie Jean leveraged her position to spearhead the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first president. She lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open, and a sponsor was found to level the playing field. The U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes.
The campaign for pay equality gained a worldwide audience of over 90 million when Billie Jean battled tennis player and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” Bobby had claimed the women’s game was inferior to the men’s and Billie accepted his challenge to prove him wrong. King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. No tennis match before or since has been seen by so many.
The following year, Billie Jean went on to co-found the inclusive World TeamTennis co-ed circuit and started the Women’s Sports Foundation, dedicated to creating leaders by providing girls access to sports.
While she was experiencing incredible success in her professional life, her personal life was about to come under national scrutiny.
Billie Jean had realized that she was interested in women, and had begun a secret relationship with a woman in the early 1970s. A decade later, in 1981, Billie Jean was publicly outed as a lesbian, and as a result, she lost all of her endorsement deals.
Yet through it all, her crusade against inequality in all forms never waned, and she continued to receive recognition for her many contributions to both tennis and the fight for parity.
She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, and then later became the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor. The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY, home of the US Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2006.
On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.
In 2014, she founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to addressing the critical issues required to achieve diverse, inclusive leadership in the workforce.
Following her divorce from Larry in 1987, Billie Jean found lasting love with Ilana Kloss. The couple resides in New York City. Billie Jean and Ilana remain close friends with Larry and his family.
Her tireless efforts to fight injustice and discrimination worldwide continue today.