Billie Jean King: ‘I wanted to make a difference off the court’

Billie Jean King spoke to Indiana University of Pennsylvania students on her work towards gender equality in sports March 31. (Sean Yoder/ The Penn)

Billie Jean King, a former World No. 1 professional tennis player and advocate for women’s rights, said Monday night in Fisher Auditorium that her message is and always has been for gender equality for men and women.

“My messages are for both genders, even though people always think of me as women’s rights,” King said. “It’s really about fighting for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women.”

King spoke as part of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s “Ideas and Issues” series presented by the Lively Arts, where she shared her personal story about her life on and off the tennis court.

King said she can remember the first time she stepped foot on a tennis court when she was in fifth grade.

“I asked, ‘What do you do? How do you play tennis?’ and I was told you get to run, jump and hit a ball,” King said.

Those are her three favorite aspects of sports, she said.

“I don’t even remember if I hit the ball,” King said, “but I remember how fun it was.”

The first time she ever received any coaching was through the public parks system in Long Beach, Calif.

“At the end of that session with [my coach] Clyde Walker, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life,” King said. “I knew I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world.”

She said she remembers day dreaming at the Long Beach Tennis Club, at age 12, where she started to think about everybody there wearing white shoes, white socks and white uniforms.

“I asked myself, ‘Where is everyone else?’” King said.

King said that’s when she stopped thinking about just the sport and started thinking about the world.

“I love playing tennis, and I love hitting the ball,” King said. “But I wanted to make a difference off the court, and I made that decision really early.”

King has won 39 Grand Slam titles, but she said that the match that defines her career is the 1973 match – known as the “Battle of the Sexes” – against former World No. 1-tennis player Bobby Riggs.

King said she knew she would either be known as the girl who won or lost to that guy.

“It’s absolutely true,” King said. “Every single day of my life since that match, someone has asked me about that match.”

When King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Barack Obama told her that watching the “Battle of the Sexes” at the age of 12 later changed his idea of how he would raise his two daughters.

The match took place during the time when Title IX was introduced to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding such as school athletic programs, King said.

“The reason I wanted to beat Riggs was because of Title IX,” King said. “I wanted social change, and I knew it would define me.”

After she stopped competing, she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation where she said she “wanted any girl to be able to compete and make a living.” She also co-founded World TeamTennis, the co-ed professional league.

“We’re in 66 countries,” King said. “We’re in every part of the world, and we have equal prize money now.”

King said it’s so important for men and women to champion each other.

She said she loves seeing women athletes like Serena Williams, who won her seventh Sony Open title last Saturday, succeed in their careers.

“That was great; she has the most beautiful serve,” King said. “Her serve is, by far, one of the best technical serves in the game, just gorgeous. It’s like ballet, just beautiful.”

King said it’s now up to the young people of this generation to start thinking about how they want to shape the future.

“So, it’s up to you guys,” King said. “You really have to start to think about how do I want to shape this world that I live in for myself, for my family, for my children. How do you want the world to look?”

When watching other athletes compete, King said she roots for players because of the person they are rather than for how well they play.

“I just sit back and watch,” she said. “Do they want to make a difference and be relevant? That’s what I look for.

“You never know how someone is going to touch your life,” she said. “Or how you are going to touch theirs.”