On Sept. 8, Serena Williams made headlines when she drew steep penalties at the U.S. Open from chair umpire Carlos Ramos. In the course of the match, Williams slammed a racquet on the ground in anger and repeatedly argued with the umpire. She was fined for her contact, which also cost her a point and a game. She ultimately lost the match.
At the heart of Williams’ heated response to the situation was her sense that male tennis players behave much more badly on the court and draw much less severe penalties. This, after weeks of discussion (once again) of what female players (and we know they mean Williams in particular) would be allowed to wear on the court at the French Open.
Are we still here, discussing the differences in the way male and female athletes are treated? Didn’t Billie Jean King settle the question of whether or not women deserved to be taken as seriously as men when she defeated Bobby Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973 in a match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”?
Yes, we still are here, and so is Billie Jean King. At 74, the moxie that took her to victory under the lights at the Astrodome that night – and a whole lot of other victories before and after – remains in full bloom. The powerhouse player has invested her moxie on and off the court fighting for dignity and respect for women.
Here’s my take on the moxie that drives King:
Some people are born into moxie.
King comes from a family of athletes. Her mother, Betty, was a powerful swimmer, and her father, Bill, excelled at baseball, basketball and track. Her brother, Randy, pitched for the San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, and Toronto Blue Jays.
King herself excelled at softball, and played shortstop on a championship team with players several years older.
But when she first picked up a racket at the age of twelve, she knew she’d found her true passion. In just three years she was already catching national attention, and started playing in tournaments all over the country.
King explains she isn’t competitive as much as she is a perfectionist. She’s on the hunt for the perfect shot, the perfect game the perfect match.
“I’m a perfectionist much more than I’m a super competitor, and there’s a big difference there…. I’ve been painted as a person who only competes…. But most of all, I get off on hitting a shot correctly,” said King.
That perfectionism drove King to the number one spot in the world, and 39 Grand Slam titles.
Moxie doesn’t accept discrimination quietly.
King got an early introduction into rigid gender differences when she was excluded from a group photo of young players because she was wearing tennis shorts instead of a tennis skirt.
The differences became more pronounced as she advanced. Tournament payouts for men and women were unequal. As a champion, she earned significantly less in prize money than her male counterparts. She campaigned and advocated tirelessly to change that, and in 1973 the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women.
In the midst of the struggle to obtain equal pay, Bobby Riggs came calling. The 55-year-old former Wimbledon champ was making a name for himself by proclaiming loudly that he could still defeat even the most talented female in her prime, simply because he was a man. He’d already defeated Margaret Court, one of the greatest players of all time.
King knew everything was on the line with this one exhibition match. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem,” she said.
She didn’t let women down. She went on to defeat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Was the match a spectacle? Certainly. Was it a publicity stunt? I’d say that’s a “yes.” But King recognized its symbolic importance, and she rose to the challenge.
People with moxie make sacrifices for the greater good.
To a great extent, King sacrificed her own personal advancement for the greater goal of achieving equality.
“My only regret is that I had to do too much off the court. Deep down, I wonder how good I really could have been if I [had] concentrated just on tennis,” she said.
As bold as she was about taking on gender inequality, she suffered in silence over her own sexuality. In the early 70s she began having an affair with a woman while still married to her husband, Larry. She kept her sexuality private for fear of the reaction from her deeply conservative family, and for fear that it would undermine the newly-established women’s tennis tour she helped to found. Perhaps that secret drove her to keep others at arms’ length.
“For a time, I think I was as close to Billie Jean as anyone ever was. But as soon as I got to the point where I could read her too well, she tried to dissociate the relationship,” fellow tennis player Kristen Kemmer Shaw once said of her relationship with King. “She doesn’t want to risk appearing weak in front of anybody. She told me once that if you want to be the best, you must never let anyone, anyone, know what you really feel. You see, she told me, they can’t hurt you if they don’t know.”
King was able to come out to her parents in her early 50s, and now advocates for LGBTQ rights, too.
The struggle with silence pushed King into an eating disorder. She later said she wishes she’d had the courage to come out sooner. It might have saved her years of mental and physical anguish.
People with moxie often find it much easier to act on behalf of others than to look out for themselves. There’s a lesson there: it’s ok to take care of yourself, too.
If you could ask King anything, what would you ask?