By Leslie Robinson
On opening night of the U.S. Open, Aug. 28, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) will serve up an ace in Flushing, N.Y. That night, with pomp and circumstance, the USTA National Tennis Center will be officially rechristened the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
This is a step for humankind–and homo-kind.
I’ll start with her accomplishments as a player. King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.
I won a 12-and-under tournament once.
King will forever be remembered for playing in the “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs. I remember watching that in 1973, planted with my family in front of the TV. Though not quite 10 years old, I knew it was important that Billie Jean win. How thoughtful she was to oblige.
Riggs at the time was a tennis hustler with more miles on him than a wood-paneled station wagon, but King’s victory nonetheless gave women’s tennis – and women–a boost.
While an active player Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money in men’s and women’s tournaments. She spearheaded the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. Her efforts helped lay the groundwork for Title IX, the federal legislation that helped girls like me experience the joy of running suicides.
In 1975 readers of Seventeen chose her as the most admired woman in the world. In 1990 Life named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.”
Not bad for Billie Jean Moffitt, who learned to whack the ball on the public courts of Long Beach, and has always believed in reducing the game’s snootiness quotient.
In announcing the center’s renaming, USTA President Franklin Johnson said, “Billie Jean King is one of tennis’ greatest heroes. Much like Arthur Ashe, for whom our showcase stadium is named, Billie Jean is a champion not only of sport, but a champion of those causes in which she so strongly believes. Her accomplishments have benefited all women in sports, as well as countless women in any number of career fields.
“Those things, along with her extraordinary tennis achievements, cry out for recognition, and I am thrilled that our Board unanimously agreed on renaming our National Tennis Center in her honor,” he said.
Me, I’m a little surprised that the board didn’t wear earmuffs to muffle that cry. She certainly did rock the boat on behalf of women’s equality, but I guess most of the officials she made seasick back then have died–from old age, not seasickness–or have adjusted. But mainly I’m a tad surprised because Billie Jean is a sister of Sappho.
She didn’t come out on her own. Marilyn Barnett outed her in 1981 by filing a “galimony” suit. The married King copped to the affair, but wouldn’t say she was gay. I’ve found her long reticent period irksome, but I realize that’s not fair. In fact, that’s a foot fault on me.
King was born into a conservative Catholic family, and the issue of sexual orientation has been a mighty struggle for her. I’d guess that 25 years ago she still acutely felt the weight of being a trailblazer for women, and feared undercutting the movement’s advances. She presumably also feared she’d lose her commercial endorsements, which she did.
But Billie Jean and American society have caught up to each other. She just served as a Gay Games Ambassador. And now the USTA is bestowing on her this jumbo honor.
First it recognized Arthur Ashe, an African-American who died of AIDS, and now Billie Jean King, a lesbian feminist. Hurray for the USTA’s current brand of tennis snobbery: only the best people are immortalized.