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If you ask a fan who the most influential person in women’s tennis is today, answers might range anywhere from Maria Sharapova to the Williams sisters.
However, after speaking to a large crowd Monday night in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Auditorium, Billie Jean King left little doubt about who the most important player in the sport is, even some 38 years since her last major championship.
For the IUP women’s tennis team, King’s presentation has the potential to keep a lasting effect on the team, both on the court and in life.
“My biggest take away from the presentation was that I should really strive to be my authentic self no matter what,” captain Abby McCormick (junior, health and physical education) said. “This is definitely one of my core values and something I am always working toward, but to hear it coming from one of the most inspirational people to ever live was moving.”
King, 70, won 20 Wimbledon titles on her way to 39 overall Grand Slam victories. However, King’s impact on the sport is tied to the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against former world No. 1-men’s player Bobby Riggs.
Riggs proclaimed himself a “male chauvinist pig” but was thoroughly outplayed in the match at Houston’s Astrodome by King, who won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
“The reason I wanted to beat him was for social change,” King said Monday night.
The match would serve as the jumping point for gender equality, with the newly signed Title IX law enacted just a year before in 1972.
Simply put, without Title IX, women athletes would face even more obstacles than are presented today. The law promises protection from discrimination based on gender.
“Without Title IX, I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I do today,” Ranvita Mahto (senior, natural sciences/pre-physical therapy). “If I was living prior to Title IX, my opportunities in the work and education field would be extremely limited, being a woman of color.”
Other teammates shared Mahto’s views about King’s relevance in the women’s sports world.
“You can definitely say that I owe Billie Jean King a huge thank-you,” Tanya Timko (junior, psychology) said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete for IUP.”
As a sign of her stature among women athletes, King was named to the Presidential Delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia by President Barack Obama.
Though much of her talk Monday was about gender equality in sports, King did offer helpful advice that could be used by anybody, not just tennis players or athletes. King’s three steps to becoming a better person included having good relationships, never stopping learning and being a problem-solver.
Another theme was to embrace being nervous and to find heroes and “sheroes” to look up to, like parents and coaches instead of professional athletes.
“The real heroes or sheroes are always close to home,” King said.
One of the highlights of the lecture for the team was when King called the players out and spoke to them directly from the stage. Later, team members assisted King on stage as she hit autographed tennis balls into the crowd as friend Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” a song written about King’s World TeamTennis club, played in the background to end the evening.
“I loved it. It fired me up,” McCormick said. “I mean how often does the most influential person in tennis tell you exactly what she wants from you?”
Whether or not King’s lecture had a lasting effect on the audience is not even a question.
“She has stood up for women everywhere and has allowed me to have more opportunities,” Timko said. “We need more people like Billie Jean King.”