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Billie Jean King Holds Court

The pioneering tennis star talks new film, gender equality

Q: Battle of the Sexes is out this month. How did your match with Bobby Riggs change America?

A: There was an explosion of growth in tennis. There were so many people who watched that match—the exposure, the tension, the buildup. People were starting to ask themselves questions [about gender equality]. I am big on equality and inclusion. I knew tennis was my platform.

Q: Why was it critical for you to defeat Riggs?

A: I knew all about Bobby Riggs when I played him—I don’t think he knew much about me. He was one of my heroes. The reason I beat him is because I respected him so much. Everybody in the world thought a guy—any guy—could beat any girl. That got me irritated. When I played Bobby, this is what I wanted out of it: I wanted everyone to come together. I wanted to start changing the hearts and minds of people.

Q: Where did your passion for promoting equality come from?

A: When I was 12, I had an epiphany. I was at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. It was the 1950s. I started thinking about my sport. Everyone was white. I said to myself, Where is everybody else? It was heavy on my mind at the time. I promised myself that I would fight for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. The King-Riggs match gave me the biggest platform I could ever have had.

Q: Decades later, how do women and men react to the match?

A: I have not had one day in my life where someone doesn’t come up to me and say something about it. Women will say to me, “I watched that match. That gave me self-confidence for the first time.” Guys will come up and say, “I didn’t understand until I had a daughter.” Kids say, “My grandparents told me all about you. You played this big match against this guy—and you won!”

Q: And today’s gender fault lines?

A: Girls are taught to be perfect. Boys are taught to be brave—“Stop crying.” That’s why girls never think they are good enough; it’s the message we get from the day we’re born. It drives me insane the way we’re socialized. The most important thing is to be your authentic self. Meritocracy is important. That’s one great thing about sports—it is objective. You either win or lose.

Q: Bruce Jenner was a star of the same era. Did his transformation to Caitlyn shock you?

A: I didn’t know him well. He always was very kind. In the ’70s, women on the tour were up in arms about [sports transgender pioneer] Dr. Renée Richards. I talked to medical people, then to Renée for four hours. I told our players she was going to play. I said, give her a chance, you will love her. They did. When Bruce became Caitlyn, it did not surprise me. I’m 73—nothing surprises me.

Billie Jean King interview

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On September 20, 1973 Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in the so-called Battle of the Sexes.

Q: Are you still physically active?

A: I am not as fit as I would like to be. I’ve had so many operations on my knees, shoulder and foot. What works best for me is non-weight-bearing exercises—sprints on the bike. I’m starting to walk more. I like to lift weights.

Q: How’s your game these days?

A: I am just trying to start to play again. I played 10 minutes the other day. [Laughs.] I love to hit the ball. The double knee replacements I had five years ago changed my life. I have been in pain since my 20s. I couldn’t walk a block. Now I don’t have any pain in my knees. It’s the weirdest feeling.

Q: Who inspires Billie Jean King?

A: I get inspired every day by people. I want kids to dream. But a lot of kids are going hungry—how can they dream? We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country. That comes with empathy and taking action to help make a difference.