Billie Jean King was born on November 22, 1943 in Long Beach, California to a firefighter father and a housewife mother. She was raised in a very athletic household — her brother Randy grew up to be a professional baseball player. Billie’s first love was softball but at the age of 11 she took up tennis. She went on to become one of the most successful tennis players in the history of the sport.
Over the course of her career, King won 12 Grand Slam singles title, 16 Grand Slam doubles titles, and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. She won 20 Wimbledon championships and 4 U.S. Opens. She was ranked the number one singles player for five years during a six year span. Billie Jean is also a staunch supporter of women’s rights, both on and off the tennis court. She is an advocate against sexism in sports and society and spoke out for the right of women to earn comparable money in tennis and other sports. She is perhaps best known for the “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs in 1973. Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion who declared that women would never play tennis as well as men and challenged King to a match. She accepted and easily beat Riggs in three straight sets. Her victory was also a victory for the women’s rights movements and showed that female athletes were just as capable as men.
Billie Jean King was the first female athlete to be named “Sportsperson of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. In 1990 she was the only female athlete named as one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” in Life. She has been inducted into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her work advocating the rights of women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
King played her last competitive tennis match in 1983 but has remained active in the sport as an announcer, coach, and author. She has also founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and World Team Tennis. In 2007, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She said she was not shocked by the diagnosis, as her family has a long history of the disease. She is active in the fight to raise awareness about diabetes and was the spokesperson for the Face of Change campaign, a traveling photo exhibit that included personal stories about diabetes. King established the ”Novo Nordisk Donnelly” awards in 1998 to encourage children with diabetes to lead an active life and to compete in tennis.