One of the greats of tennis, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slams, including a record twenty Wimbledon titles. She was world number one for five years and was responsible for establishing the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) forty years ago. She defeated all the greats – Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court. However, it was the victory over a 55 year old man that she will be remembered for the most, furthering the cause of women’s struggle for equality in the 1970s.
The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ captured the imagination of the world, not just tennis enthusiasts. On 20 September 1973 in Houston, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon Champion 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
“I thought it would set women back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said.
It was for Billie Jean’s crusading that LIFE Magazine in 1990 named her one of the ‘100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century’. She was the only female athlete on the list.
With her long-time friend, rock legend Elton John, her World Team Tennis Smash Hits event was staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the Statoil Masters’ Tennis Tournament last weekend. It raised $1million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. I was lucky enough to meet the very personable Billie Jean as she left the event, and she signed my sketch.