By Barbara Bry
Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 27, 2021
Billie Jean King is my “shero.”
Watching the U.S. Open women’s and men’s tennis champions Emma Raducanu and Daniil Medvedev receive the same winner’s share of prize money — $2.5 million — I reflected on how much women’s tennis and all women’s professional sports owe to King’s entrepreneurial, relentless spirit. It was special that I was reading her recently published autobiography “All In,” (written with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers) during this year’s U.S. Open, played of course at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Born in 1943, King grew up at a time when a woman couldn’t get a credit card in her own name (until 1974) or an athletic scholarship. She writes that she loved to compete in many sports but quickly realized “no matter how good I was, my life would be limited because I was female.” But she was determined to change the status quo, where male players received higher per diems and male tournament purses were greater.
King was a fierce competitor both on and off the courts, leading player efforts to start the first professional women’s tennis tour in the 1970s, becoming the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association, starting the Women’s Sports Foundation, and co-founding World Team Tennis and Women Sports magazine.
Her autobiography contains important lessons for entrepreneurs and exemplifies many of the rules about which Neil and I have written.
Here are a few examples.
Rule No. 330: Follow your own star. At least that way, you know where you’re going.
Throughout her life, King was determined to make life better for the next generation of women athletes. She led efforts to improve their professional prospects and advocated for the passage of Title IX, which eliminated sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. It opened the door to athletic scholarships for women — a development that was game-changing in developing professional women’s sports. In addition, she was an active mentor to the next generation of players, including Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova.
Rule No. 218: Grand passion and relentless pursuit will take you further than good grades.
In 1973, King played Bobby Riggs, a former No. 1 ranked player, in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Earlier, Riggs had beaten Margaret Court, then the world’s No. 2 women’s player in a match dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” Preparing for the match, King knew that she had to win to preserve the gains in women’s tennis and not undermine Title IX. The match was a best of five sets in comparison with best of three in women’s tennis so her daily practice regime was relentless and included 200 situps and 400 leg extensions using homemade ankle weights. She beat Riggs easily in three sets.
Rule No. 47: You cannot let the fear paralyze you.
In 1967, King was the No. 1 ranked player in the world, and she kept pushing for change.
She did not shut up and threatened to boycott tournaments if the women players weren’t treated better, even though she risked being suspended. That year, she won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Forest Hills, then the venue for the U.S. Tennis Championships.
Rule No. 682: A good leader is authentic.
King writes about the inner torment she suffered in acknowledging that she was a lesbian and in dealing with an eating disorder. “Who turns being outed into a way to burrow deeper into the closet? But that’s what I did.” When she did fully come out and acknowledge Ilana Kloss, now her partner for more than 40 years, a burden was lifted off her, she felt freer to expand her activism, and her personal life blossomed.
Off the court, having seen a problem, she was determined to address and solve it. On the court, she was simply determined to go for it.
She concludes, “When you look at yourself in the mirror, when you’re older and wrinkled like I am, how will you want to remember yourself? How will you want others to remember you? What will you want to say that you stood for, and did with your life?”
I will remember Billie Jean King as a leader who had the courage to fight for equality.
Rule No. 683
“Pressure is a privilege.”
— Billie Jean King