AS A YOUNG GIRL in the early 1950s, Billie Jean King had a terrible epiphany. Her parents had taken her and her brother to a Pacific Coast baseball game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars. Surveying the players on the field, she felt a visceral wave of disappointment: “I was a girl who loved to play ball and compete. I was as good at it as any boy my age. Now I had smacked into a wall; it was the first time I realized that no matter how good I was, my life would be limited because I was female.” Unless she did something about it, that is.
Thirty-nine Grand Slam tennis titles later (in both singles and doubles), that wall had been taken down with one well-placed shot after another. King wasn’t just out for herself, though. In 1970, when haughty misogynists of the tennis establishment insisted that no one would pay to watch women play tennis, King persuaded eight other top female players to commit to a separate women’s professional tour. With her innate sense of fairness and a champion’s fighting spirit, she brought the women’s movement to women’s sports.
Born in 1943 in Long Beach, California, Billie Jean Moffitt came of age with the modern game of tennis. She was introduced to the sport by a childhood friend, took free public lessons, and quickly began beating older, more experienced opponents. She was already a Wimbledon women’s doubles champion when she enrolled at L.A. State College (now Cal State LA). In her sophomore year, she met a handsome freshman named Larry King whose squeaky-clean background was similar to her own. It wasn’t long before she left college to concentrate on tennis, and the couple got married. Larry went on to earn a law degree and become an entrepreneur and tennis promoter. In All In, Billie Jean lauds his progressive views on women’s rights and gives him credit for his role in establishing the women’s pro tennis circuit.
Hilary Holladay is the author of The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography(2020).