Billie Jean King is acutely aware of the social change she has helped herald.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association won the infamous Battle of the Sexes game against Bobby Riggs in 1973. Next month, the match and its nuanced aftereffects — which rippled through athletics and society at large — are the subject of a new film, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs, respectively.
While attending the U.S. Open Wednesday night on behalf of Citizen Watch, which has helped sponsor the film as well as striking a recent partnership with King’s Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, the tennis great reflected on advancements for athletics and women’s rights in the years since her momentous victory.
King acknowledged that women’s tennis is one of the few sports in which women’s players receive near-equal fanfare to men’s champions. “It’s the only sport I can really think of,” she noted.
During the discussion, King’s thoughts materialized on-court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where 37-year-old Venus Williams won her second round match against Océane Dodin. King pointed out her own career’s total prize money — at approximately $2 million — pales with today’s sums (Williams, for example, is nearing $38 million). “We knew we were doing it for future generations,” King noted of her campaign to start the Women’s Tennis Association, marking women’s first official foray into professional tennis.
On advancements in athletics:
“Everything has changed. All of the technology, the racquets, the strings the nutrition and workout information. They just have so much more information available. And because there is money in the sport now, people follow the money. You have a lot of people helping you — a hitting partner, a trainer, sometimes a chiropractor. All these different forms of therapy help someone reach an optimal level. Their level of performance is much different from where we were.
On racquet technology:
“Everyone concentrates on the strings now. They have little edges in the strings that exaggerates the spin of the ball. If they tried to hit now with our old wooden rackets it wouldn’t make it to the service line. Martina Navratilova, who plays a lot still, said: ‘It’s such a joke now with these racquets. You can do anything with them it’s so much easier.’ But I think that’s good for recreational playing.”
On meeting Emma Stone for her film role:
“She came to the apartment in New York and met with Ilana and me. I didn’t see her much and she didn’t want to see me — but she didn’t tell me that. When Holly Hunter played me in a TV movie, she couldn’t get enough of me. But Emma said, ‘You’re fully formed, you’re in your 70s — I want to go back when you’re 28, 29 and know that person. So she read, she looked at every videotape and tried to remember me at that age. I think she chose the right process for what she needed in the movie.”
On Battle of the Sexes and its effects:
“In those days media was totally run by men — there were four TV channels and women couldn’t get a credit card on their own, they had to be cosigned.
“I knew the ramifications of playing Bobby, he kept following me all around trying to get the match. I had just started women’s professional tennis and told him — ‘I’m so tired, we don’t get sleep and we have matches, too. I don’t have time to play you, I don’t want to play you — you’re older, you’re the same age as my father and it wouldn’t mean anything, athletically, to beat you.” He approached other players and when Margaret Court agreed to play him, she lost badly. As soon as she played him, I knew I had to play him for the sake of the tour and for the sake of the women’s movement — for the sake of equality.
“I knew everyone would be watching and that it would touch the minds and hearts of people. You have no idea what was going on in months before the match — everyone was betting on it, talking about it. There were a lot of parties that night — parties in the suburbs, parties with sororities and fraternities. Everyone knew what was going on — we had 90 million people watching [on TV]. I knew I had this platform to help advance equality.
“It’s not just about girls, is another thing I want to say. When people say to me, ‘Thanks what you do for women,’ it gets me crazy, because that keeps our marketplace half the size. You would never say that to a guy: ‘Oh thanks what you’ve done for guys,’ you say ‘Thanks for your leadership.’ We need to teach this to young people, especially our boys.”