BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., (Reuters) – The two women who battled in Sunday’s final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament earned prize money equal to their male counterparts and perhaps no person was more instrumental in bringing about that parity than Billie Jean King.
And yet, the 39-time Grand Slam title-winner is disappointed with the progress of equality 40 years after her groundbreaking achievements for women’s tennis and the women’s movement, perhaps most notably her defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes.”
“Sports are a microcosm of society and women have so far to go,” King, 69, told Reuters in a recent interview. “We don’t make as much money, we don’t have the opportunity to play as many sports at the pro-level, we are not even scratching the surface.”
King’s contributions to sports and the women’s movement are chronicled this week in the PBS “American Masters” series. It is the first profile of a sports figure in the program’s 27-year history. It airs in the United States tonight.
It blends the story of King with testimonies from those who played against her, those who followed in her footsteps and those who were inspired by her feats both on and off the court.
King grew up in a middle-class, Long Beach, California, family. As she rose to be a top-ranked player, winning her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 1966, the lack of equality with men rankled King.
She was one of the “Original 9” members of the Virginia Slims Circuit, created in part to address pay inequity with men, and founded in 1973 the Women’s Tennis Association, which made big inroads on pay and still runs women’s tennis today.
For all her accomplishments, it was the match against a man, former champion Bobby Riggs, that took on mythical status in King’s career. She has no regrets about that.
‘HOW MEN LOOKED AT US’
“I knew it would get exposure. It was a seminal moment. And the timing could not have been more important,” she said, noting that a woman at that time still couldn’t get a credit card without a man’s backing.
“American Masters” shows footage of King holding her own in the media circus, calmly responding to Riggs’ baiting. To keep up her end of the prime-time spectacle, King boldly entered the arena Cleopatra-style, held aloft by bare-chested men.
“It could be a pivotal moment for women and men, how men looked at us and how women looked at themselves,” she said. “It gave women more courage to ask for what they wanted.”
King ended up winning the match in straight sets.
ESPN reported last month that Riggs might have lost the match to cancel a debt with mobsters, a possibility that King has rejected, saying she saw his will to win in his eyes.
King has been stopped by men who tell her the match influenced them to raise their daughters to be equal to their sons. Women tell her they asked for pay raises after the match and won them.
Today she is disappointed by the small number of women chief executives, media moguls and congresswomen. And she laments that there is not enough interest in women’s professional sports.
“The men in particular do not want to invest in us,” King said. “We need men and women who will invest long term and be willing to lose money like they do in men’s sports.”
King is pleased by one area of progress – gay rights.
Thirty years ago, she was outed as gay by a former lover and, while still married to Larry King, decided to tell the truth, even though her lawyer and publicist advised her not to.
“I was in shock,” she said of the memorable press conference. “I just wanted it to be open and truthful. I did have an affair. Done.”
She later divorced King and has been with partner and tennis player Ilana Kloss for years. With same-sex marriage now legal in a number of states, including New York where they live, they could marry, but King said the trauma of divorce and being outed still holds her back.
Singer and friend Elton John has tried to convince her. “He says ‘I’ll play (at your wedding). You are a famous gay person, you gotta do this,’” King said. “I don’t gotta do nothing, baby.”