By Alec Matuszak
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Former tennis superstar and known feminist, Billie Jean King, spoke at the Tilles Center on Thursday, Jan. 26, and she brought us into the world of her historic tennis career, as well as spoke on other interesting topics. The Hillwood Recital Hall was full of sports fans and King’s admirers at 7:30 p.m. as they excitedly waited for the idol to walk on stage and address the crowd.
As early as age 12, King said to her mother, “Mom, I’m going to be the best player in the world.” This goal may have seen farfetched at the time, considering King didn’t even know what tennis was until she was introduced to the sport by fellow player Susan Williams. She asked King, “Do you play tennis?” and King replied, “What’s tennis?” It was at that moment King discovered what she wanted to dedicate her life to. After her first time on the court, she knew she loved the game.
There was more to tennis that mattered to King than the actual game. As King realized her potential, she also understood that she could be the catalyst to incite social change. She would say to herself, “Everyone who plays is white,” as she noticed commonalities in the athletes. “I was one of the lucky ones and I knew it.” She understood that she could play a big role in advancing women’s tennis, and she promised herself that she would “stay committed to fighting for equal rights for men and women.” The rights she fought for throughout her career were not guaranteed, although many men and women take them for granted for today. In a 1968 ruling, the British Lawn Tennis Association decided that both prize and amateurs could play for prize money. Most would think this was a win for feminism and equality, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially when gender plays a major role in the money one can bring in from a win. After winning her first event under the implementation of the new rules, King was only awarded 750 British pounds, significantly less than the 2500 pounds that her male counterparts received.
One of the most notable obstacles that King and other female competitors faced throughout their careers was the right to compete in their own tournament. For years, the men went on their own tours, but women’s tennis was steadily gaining popularity. King knew that in order for her wishes to be fulfilled, she needed to use all of the leverage that the women had. After gathering all of the top female players in a hotel room, they signed their first major sponsorship deal with cigarette company Phillip Morris. Despite not endorsing cigarette smoking herself, she and the other athletes accepted what is now known as the “one dollar deal.” With an endorser on board and several of the top players on her side, King then formed the Women’s Tennis Association which drastically changed the landscape of women’s tennis. She proclaimed, “The women got all of the attention in 1973.”
One of the most memorable moments of King’s career was defeating Bobby Riggs. Riggs was a decorated tennis player himself and the best player in the world in 1946 and 1947. The tennis match between these stars was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” King’s victory was a defining moment for female athletes all across the globe trying to fight the stigma that women’s sports were a lesser version of men’s. Defeating Riggs in September 1973 notified everyone that the women were here to play, too. King and the other women athletes helped prove that they could be the star of the shows as well, with legions of fans cheering on both the male and female competitors. King joked that she had to beat Riggs because she “respected him.”
Senior arts management major, Michaella Browne who is also a Tillis Center employee, attended the conversation with Billie Jean King. Browne was anxious to hear King speak as she looks up to her for being a “groundbreaking woman in tennis” and other aspects of life. She mentions, “I like feminist ideals she stands for… she’s a great role model for young girls.” After King’s discussion, Browne said she “was surprised by how vital she was to the forming of the WTA.”
Sophomore tennis player and forensics and psychology major, Shanice Arthur, was also excited to listen to Billie Jean King. “I didn’t know she was that involved in equal rights for everyone,” Arthur said. “It’s kind of incredible how she takes her time and spends her own to make sure that everyone is treated equally.”