The Long Game Tennis star Billie Jean King discusses her frank new memoir
At 77, tennis superstar Billie Jean King is finally at peace with her life, happily married to her wife, and hitting balls again, Johanna Schneller reports
IF YOU HAD BEEN THE NO. 1 WOMEN’S TENNIS PLAYER IN THE WORLD SIX TIMES; if you had earned 39 Grand Slam titles; if you’d been the first woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine (even though the editors chickened out and made you share the cover with a man); if your self-sacrifice had forced tennis organizations to pay women what they pay men; and if you’d played a match so seminal to second-wave feminism that they made a movie about you (2017’s Battle of the Sexes), you might not think the happiest, most fulfilling decade of your life would be your 70s.
But it is for Billie Jean King, 77, because that outward success, glittering as it was, wasn’t enough to offset the pain of living a lie. After years of denying her sexuality, and then nearly losing her career over it, King married her long-time girlfriend Ilana Kloss in October 2018. As she writes in her new memoir, All In, nothing beats finally owning her authentic self.
“I’m so much happier and have better perspective,” King says in a phone interview from her home in New York City. Talking to her is like bouncing a ball off a newly strung tennis racquet, boinging from subject to subject, brisk and taut and chatty. “My priorities are kindness, goodness, respect and love. I’m very simple that way.”
All In is a doorstopper, 496 pages stuffed with vivid detail. King honours every player who came before her, and those who helped along the way, by giving them the full bio treatment; plus, she can recall key matches shot by shot. From her earliest days as a kid on the public tennis courts in Long Beach, Calif. – where she benefitted from a bold municipal initiative to turn tennis from country-club exclusivity into a sport open to everyone – King was aware of history and her place in it.
“I don’t know why, but I had this sixth sense that my history was important,” she says. “Everything I read as a child was history, biography. I’m big on young people reading history. I keep telling them, ‘It’s about you.’ If you do that, they go, ‘Oh, now I’m awake.’ History is alive. The more they know about it, the more they’ll know about themselves. And it will help them shape the future.”
King is one of those people (Jane Fonda is another) whose life keeps intersecting with history’s turning points. “I was on a path,” she writes, “that didn’t yet exist for women.” Born Billie Jean Moffitt in 1943, she was punished in elementary school for “taking advantage of her superior ability at recess.” An early coach tried to tell her she couldn’t do a trick shot all the male players were using. (“Girls don’t do the American twist.”) At the beginning of her career, she was deemed “unreasonable” for asking perfectly reasonable questions: Why do male players get top facilities and coaches, while females get the crumbs – and are expected to be grateful for them? Why were there no university sports scholarships for women? Why did women have to hold free exhibition matches to “prove” that audiences would show up?
She was a virgin on her wedding day in 1965, when she married tennis player and entrepreneur Larry King. Then 21, she was already the No. 1 women’s player in the U.S., an instant star with a thrilling, assertive style. Male sportswriters deemed it “unfeminine,” but the crowds ate it up. “The day my brain really clicked in was in 1968, when Rod Laver and I both won Wimbledon, and he got a cheque for 2,400 pounds, and I got a cheque for 750 pounds,” King says. “Just because the committee, all white men, decided to do it that way. Sitting around the table at the All England Club, planning my fate.”
In 1970, King led eight other women players – known as the Original Nine – to form their own league, with financial backing from Gladys Heldman (founder of World Tennis magazine) and Virginia Slims cigarettes (whose slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” tied their brand to feminism). “The Original Nine is probably the most important thing to happen, not only in women’s tennis, but also in women’s sport,” King says proudly.
But their battles continued: King had to threaten to boycott tournaments until women’s prizes equalled the men’s. “Male sports have been developed for hundreds of years,” she says. “They’ve been invested in, both in dollars and in media attention. I wanted that for us.” When she decided to have an abortion in 1971, her husband (a true feminist) had to sign a consent form. That year she became the first woman to earn $100,000 a year playing a sport.
One of her biggest rivals, Chris Evert, said that King’s weakness was her impatience, but King knew it was fury, and she knew why. “I had so much anger in me for things that were happening off the court,” she says. “I was sick and tired of
being a second-class citizen, and always thinking of how I could change that. But if you’re positive in how you direct it, anger can give you more energy, more spirit. It took us 34 years to get equal prize money for women at the Grand Slams. You have to be in for the long game if you want change.”
The match that cemented King’s place in history was played in 1973, against Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome. He was 55, a former top player who piqued the press with outrageous claims such as, “The man is supreme!” She was 29, already plagued by knee trouble, but hyper aware that a loss would mean a setback for women’s rights. Ninety million people watched on TV, and she crushed him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. But not before the sportscaster Howard Cosell introduced her by saying, “If she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, you'd have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test.”
HERE’S WHERE KING’S secret life came in. First, she was struggling with bulimia. Second, she fell in love with a woman, Marilyn Barnett, a hairstylist from Beverly Hills. Barnett began travelling with King, as her assistant. Larry knew the truth, but King lived in fear that her lucrative, hard-won endorsement deals would evaporate if the public found out – so much so that King continued to support Barnett financially long after their relationship ended. “Everyone told me I had to lie, or I would take the whole tour down with me,” King says. “So I would yell at the umpire” to vent her feelings.
Then in 1979, at age 35, King fell in love with Kloss, a 23-year-old player. Around the same time, she offered Barnett a payout to remove her from her life. In revenge, Barnett outed King in 1981, and her worst fears came true: In two months, King lost $500,000 in cancelled endorsements, and another $1.5 million in deals she would have made.
Her hopes of retiring dashed, King continued to play, hobbled by knee surgeries. She and Larry divorced, amicably, in 1987 (she’s now godmother to his two children), but it wasn’t until she went to rehab for her bulimia in 1995 that she fully embraced her sexuality. “When my therapist asked me, ‘When are you going to take your power back?’ that was a turning point,” King says. “She was right. I’d given my power to my parents, because I always wanted to please them. But oh, they were homophobic. The hardest challenge of my life was telling them, at 51, ‘I’m gay.’ My mother kept saying, ‘What did I do wrong?’
“But that was my turning point, from being miserable, toward becoming truly happy,” King continues. “Because I gave it attention. You have to pay attention to allow something to grow, whether it’s a tree or your life. I finally asked for help. That was huge. Surrender is a miraculous word.”
Twenty years later, the thing King feared the most – being a queer pioneer – is the thing she’s most celebrated for. “I’m so happy for young people today,” she says. “Now it’s ‘in’ to be your authentic self. They have no idea how tough it was, and I’m so glad they don’t, but I think they need to know the history of it. I think millennials and gen-Z are great. They’re so much less judgmental about others. They don’t care if you’re of colour, your religion, sexuality. It’s the way I always wanted to look at people.”
King continues to stay engaged, to “stay part of the solution.” She coaches young players, and advocates for equal pay in all women’s sports. She supports the stand taken by 23-yearold tennis star Naomi Osaka, who dropped out of the French Open and Wimbledon in May, because she felt the contractual requirement for players to give post-match interviews was harming her mental health. “I like Naomi a lot,” King says. “We text. She’s very shy and very smart. I just want her to be okay. She brought up issues of mental health, which is good. We have to have compassion for others.”
King believes that good overcomes bad (“I’m very Pollyanna”) and that forgiveness is a superpower (she forgave, for example, all the tennis authorities who tried to hold her down). “Not forgiving saps your energy, your love, your sense of purpose. Forgiveness allows me to move on.”
She’s never been busier, either. She’s part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. She’s pals with Elton John. Long Beach renamed its public library for her. Kate McKinnon (herself openly queer) played her on Saturday Night Live. King calls herself “one of the luckiest people who have ever lived. Not to say it hasn’t been a tough road. But I pinch myself every day.” Her 2018 wedding to Kloss – officiated by former New York mayor David Dinkins, a long-time friend – provided the final piece of her happiness. “I always felt married to Ilana,” King says. “But people had to suffer to get marriage equality. So we did it to honour not only our own relationship, but also to say thank you to those people.”
After 25 years off the courts, King took up tennis again in 2019. Kloss hits the ball to her, so she doesn’t have to run much. “But hitting the ball,” she says, “just hitting a tennis ball – for me, it’s magical.”