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Billie Jean King Still Has a Lot to Say

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Howard Schatz

Welcome to the Cut’s sports section. Like your favorite sports bar, but without the mansplaining.

Tennis fans are spoiled. We’ve grown accustomed to gawking at the likes of Zendaya and Tom Cruise sitting courtside at Grand Slams as they watch the best female players on tour duke it out for multimillion-dollar cash prizes; seeing a women’s final sell out before the men’s; knowing that a teenage girl can score an eight-figure endorsement deal before she wins her first major title. It’s easy to accept this version of things — the glamor, grind, and glory of it all — with a kind of historical amnesia. But only 56 years ago, an American tennis player from Long Beach, California, Billie Jean King, won the Australian Championships with a steel racquet and a $14-a-day payout. Hers was the last victory in women’s tennis before the dawn of the Open Era, which would eventually bring exorbitant sums of money to professional tennis athletes — money that, for the majority of its history, was disproportionately funneled to the men.

A few years later, in 1972, King took home the $10,000 cash prize, less than half of what her male counterpart, Ilie Năstase, pocketed, for her 1972 U.S. Open victory, and she promptly announced that unless the tournament paid the victors equally, she wouldn’t be back to compete. The next year, the tournament handed out matching $25,000 paychecks to its champions. Change was not infectious. It would be another 35 years until at least part of the vision that animated King — a world in which all players were treated, and paid, as equals — was realized: Wimbledon would not pony up until 2007.

When a jubilant, two-years-shy-of-drinking-age Coco Gauff defeated Aryna Sabalenka for the 2023 U.S. Open championship title, her $3 million paycheck matched the one awarded to 24-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic a day later. King handed Gauff her trophy.

At 80 years old, King is still playing tennis (in her words, “hitting tennis balls”), forging new eras in women’s sports (the Professional Women’s Hockey League kicked off January 1), and doling out opinions, equity related and otherwise: Wimbledon whites are boring; players should wear jerseys with numbers and last names on the back; you can only know yourself if you know your history.

Ahead of the 2024 Australian Open, now well under way in Melbourne, King walked the Cut through the annals of her tennis history and offered weighted reminders that if there is any visibility on court now, in sexuality, in gender, in race, it’s because that reality did not merely appear; it was created. That change was carved out and clung to through its players’ and their allies’ decades-long, steadfast, uphill, occasionally torturous climb through uncharted terrain.

Where did tennis begin for you?

My friend Susan Williams asked me to play tennis with her in fifth grade and I said, “What’s tennis?” Basketball was our sport — baseball, softball, volleyball, every sport but tennis. Susan said, “You get to run, jump, and hit a ball.” Well, those were my three favorite things in sports then. We went down to her country club, which was the first time I’d ever been to one, and I’m already wigged out and uncomfortable. But the tennis courts were right at the entrance, so I didn’t have to go in. That’s when I hit my first tennis ball.

Afterward, my dad wouldn’t buy me a racket. So I went to all the neighbors — they felt sorry for me and gave me nickels, dimes. I had $8.29 in a mason jar when I went to Brown Sporting Goods and got my first racket. It was a lavender wine color. I just loved it. I slept with it. I read everything I could on the history of tennis, both men’s and women’s. There was very little written on women’s tennis.

I went and played at the public courts in Houghton Park in Long Beach and by the end of the session, I knew I’d found what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world. I told my mom when she came to pick me up, and she said, “That’s nice. Do you have homework?”

Fast forward one year, and I was playing at the Los Angeles Tennis Club in a big tournament. The Los Angeles Tennis Club was like the mecca of Southern California tennis. I started to notice everybody wore white: white clothes, and they played with white balls. And then I thought to myself, “Everybody who plays is white, too.” I asked myself, “Where’s everybody else?” I do remember that.

As a 12-year-old, you were already thinking about this?

You have to remember, this was a time when you’d watch television and see they weren’t letting kids of color go to white schools to get educated. That really bothered me. So I started thinking about people of color a lot more because of that. I also knew, by the time I was 11 and 12, that I was a second-class citizen, as a girl, by my gender — but also my sisters of color and people living with disabilities.

I said to myself, Maybe if I can become No. 1, I could make this world a better place. I knew I was at a huge disadvantage. Just imagine if I had been a male what I could have accomplished. People would have listened to me faster. The guys just got stuff. So I just promised myself I’d fight for equality the rest of my life.

Before the beginning of the Open Era of tennis in 1968, is it true that you were making $100 a week?

We were making 14 dollars a day. That was our expense money. A couple of times, I got money under the table, like to go to South Africa. But if you watched Wimbledon, you could see the tournament had packed crowds every day. I would ask myself, Where’s all this money going?

In the first Wimbledon where they issued prize money, Rod Laver got £2,000, and I got £750. It was in 2007 that all four majors had equal prize money. But we still don’t make as much as the guys do on the tour. We should be playing three out of five sets. We either should all be playing three out of five or two out of three, all of us.

Do you think that the WTA and ATP should merge?

I’ve always wanted us to be together. I’ve always thought that from day one. I mean, I’m the one that went around trying to get us to be together in ’68, ’69.

The resistance that you were up against decades ago, does it feel the same now? Or is it a different version?

Well, the men’s side has more money. But why do they have more money? Because media rights is where all the money is. We need to have more attention given to us. That’s starting to happen just now for the first time in my life. I’ve waited my whole life for what’s going on right now — things like billionaires investing in women’s sports.

Women’s sports have become much more popular. More and more women are going into sports at every level, from grassroots all the way to professional. More and more girls are dreaming about being a professional just like boys. So we’re on our way, I think for the first time.

How have we gotten to a better place in terms of gender equality? 

You have to go through your history to understand why things happen. People think things just happen. They don’t. It’s a lot of effort.

If we didn’t have Title IX, we would not have women’s professional anything. Well, tennis we would have. Golf, probably. But everything else? No. Especially team sports. And the reason the women did so well in the 1996 Olympics is because we’ve had Title IX in there long enough to affect enough generations of girls. I’m pre–Title IX. I worked two jobs and went to a state university. We couldn’t even have our own credit card in 1972. We didn’t get it until ’75 or ’76. So these are the things, these little things that everyone takes for granted.

What principles have you taken with you as you’ve fought for equality? 

I don’t consider anything a failure. I consider it feedback. Keep learning from everything. When you win, learn from it. When you lose, learn from it, keep learning. Relationships are everything: with yourself, your faith, your loved ones, everything. And be a problem solver and an innovator.

What are your rules for fan behavior at a match?

Fans should be able to be much more demonstrative. I don’t like it when the umpire says to be quiet. Once a player tosses the ball on his or her or their serve, people get quiet automatically. They’re watching. But don’t ever hinder the audience from getting excited.

Now, they can’t be screaming. They can’t start popping fights and start using swear words. I’m talking about in general, just let them rip. Let them have fun.

What about on-court fashion?

If you turn on Wimbledon, the required uniform is still predominantly all white. They think it’s so clever and so wonderful. It’s not. The first question I always have is, “Well, who’s who?” I can’t stand it.

I think we should have color, and I think we should have names on the back. If you go to a basketball game, a baseball game, the name of the player is on the back of their jersey. You see it in every sport but ours, and that just drives me insane. Can you imagine a baseball player not having the name of the team or their name or a number? Probably all of this won’t happen because I’m not in charge and people don’t agree with me.

What’s your No. 1 rule for enjoying life?

People are everything to me. In whatever I do — but particularly to have a good time — the key is to really listen and to really connect to the people I’m with.

I don’t drink or smoke. I think that’s helped my longevity. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally present in the now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Billie Jean King Still Has a Lot to Say