• U.S.

Sport: Billie Jean King: I’ll kill him!

5 minute read

Billie Jean King was restless. A knee injury had forced her to quit a tournament in New Jersey and spend a week doing therapeutic exercises at her East Coast home in Hilton Head, S.C. “I hate sitting around on my bozzonga,” she complained. Then who should intrude on those Friday night blahs a couple of weeks ago but Bobby Riggs, appearing yet again on TV. King listened to a few of his slurs and leaped to her feet, yelling back at the screen: “I’ll kill him!”

Whether she does or not, she is the logical champion to raise a righteous racket against the heathen. King is not merely the seasoned pro who has won five Wimbledon singles titles and two at Forest Hills. She is not only the grit player who serves, rushes and smashes as if life hung on every point. She is also the arm and brain of women’s ten nis, the rebel who broke some of the sport’s prissy traditions and made the revolution work. Like it or not, King personifies the professional female athlete that Riggs loves to taunt.

That puts King in a difficult spot. To be the sisterhood’s standard bearer in Riggs’ circus is to accept a cup she would rather pass. She acknowledges that “the only reason I’m playing him is because Margaret had to go out and play like a donkey.” So she is out to avenge Riggs’ humiliation of Margaret Court after all, and that rankles. “I mean, if I beat him, what merit does it have? Big deal. But I don’t want to lose to this guy. I don’t want to lose to anybody—but Bobby Riggs? Ugh.”

Uneasy about her role in the spectacle, she tries to treat her date with Bobby as a quirk in her career. This week she plays in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills. After that she flies back to Hilton Head for a $40,000 match involving Court, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert. Then she is off to St. Louis for a tournament. During the week of the Riggs contest at the Astrodome, she is scheduled to compete in a Virginia Slims Tournament, also in Houston.

A brutal pace? Of course. But to Billie Jean, now 29, perpetual motion is what life is all about. Her career has been one headlong rush, though as tennis champs go she started late—at age eleven. She was a tomboy who played Softball with the fellas in Long Beach, Calif. Sport, she realized, was her thing, but the demand for female shortstops was limited. Her father, a fireman, suggested that she choose tennis, swimming or golf, and she squandered $8 on a purple racket with a velvet grip. After her first day on the courts she told her mother that she wanted to be “the best tennis player in the world.”

Organized tennis then rarely encouraged competitors from the public courts, but little Miss Moffitt (her maiden name) shouldered her way through local and regional tournaments wearing a pair of homemade shorts, cussing herself on the court in most unladylike fashion and eating too much ice cream. When she was 16 she finally began private lessons; Alice Marble took her on as a protegee. Two years later, Billie Jean achieved instant recognition at Wimbledon by upsetting the top seed, Margaret Smith (later Mrs. Court).

Billie Jean attended Los Angeles State College, where she met Larry King, a pre-law student with a fair forehand. They married in 1965, and Billie Jean helped put him through law school with the under-the-table expense money she was earning on the amateur circuit. In her early days on the tour she was known as a chubby chatterbox (she once weighed 160 lbs., v. 135 now). Rhinestone-studded glasses shielded her bad eyes (20/400) and temper tantrums occasionally crippled her game.

A few years of experience smoothed out the wrinkles. She lost weight, gained poise and began acting on her conviction that the traditional dominance of the game by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association was doing precious little for women players. She agitated for bigger purses and against antiquated restrictions that bound players to U.S.L.T.A.-sanctioned tournaments. Finally she bolted to lead a rival tour two years ago. In 1971 and 1972 her annual winnings exceeded $ 100,000, a record for women athletes. This year the U.S.L.T.A. finally compromised, allowing the independents to enter the tournaments they wished. And, for the first time, this season’s U.S. Open will award equal prize money to men and women, thanks to a grant by a deodorant manufacturer.

Meanwhile Billie Jean and Husband-Partner Larry have pyramided her skill and name into a tidy little conglomerate. They have a major interest in 15 tennis camps that are expected to gross $2,000,000 in the next year. The Kings plan to publish a sports magazine aimed at the female audience. She endorses rackets, tennis shoes, toothpaste and hotcombs. She has signed a five-year contract at more than $100,000 a year to be player-coach of the Philadelphia entry in the aborning World Team Tennis League. Larry runs their business activities from Berkeley, which means that they are apart for much of the year (“We don’t have to be together all the time to be sure of each other,” she says).

In Houston, of course, it will not be the business woman or the feminist or the smiling girl in the toothpaste ads against Bobby Riggs. It will be Billie Jean King, a consummate athlete who just happens to be a woman.

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