Billie Jean King’s early epiphany led to social activism

NEW YORK (AP) — Billie Jean King discovered tennis at 11 and noticed it was nearly all white — the dresses, the balls and the people.

She won a Wimbledon doubles title at 17 and married Larry King in 1965 while both were students at California State University, Los Angeles. He studied law and played tennis on a scholarship. Billie Jean studied history and worked two jobs because she had no scholarship, which her husband noted made her a “second-class citizen.”

That epiphany led King to social activism on and off the court. She and eight other women eventually put their careers on the line in 1970 to start the Virginia Slims tennis tour, with the deep pockets of tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman and corporate sponsor Philip Morris.

The story of the early days of the tour and her fight for equal prize money is chronicled in the movie “Battle of the Sexes,” which opened nationwide on Friday.

The match between Bobby Riggs, a former tennis champion who hyped it with glib comments about gender roles, and No. 1 King played out before a sellout crowd of 30,000 at the Houston Astrodome and 50 million viewers on TV in September 1973.

There was little at stake for the 55-year-old Riggs except a chance at a $100,000 for a win. For the 29-year-old King, it was about respect for women and the reputation of the fledgling pro tour.

In this Sept. 20, 1973, file photo,Billie Jean King, top, displays her winning form against Bobby Riggs in their winner take all $100,000 tennis match in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.  (AP Photo/File)

“We had players that were willing to take a stand and be counted,” King said of women earning less than half the prize money of men at coed tournaments.

The early 1970s were tumultuous times with fomenting anti-Vietnam war, civil rights, gay rights and women’s movements. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, the federal law that opened college doors for women by banning sex discrimination in all education programs, including…

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