That 2022 US Open is in full swing at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. Record ratings were the focus Serena and Venus Williams, two champions on the pitch and also in the fight for justice in sport. Venus Williams only wrote this summer an op ed Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Title IX. However, few people know that the US Open venue is named after the original pioneer for women’s rights.
tennis icon Billie Jean King was a key advocate for the passage of the landmark law that gave women and girls equal opportunities in education and sports. “Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. It is a law that reflects the importance of gender equality in this country and serves as a benchmark of global importance,” King told the audience at a recent event celebrates the milestone. “The more we know about history, the more we know about ourselves. And most importantly, it helps us shape the future.”
As a child, King began creating the future for women. At the tender age of 12, the hall of fame said she had an epiphany on the tennis court. “The sun was going down and I was sitting there by myself and just remembering that I thought something was wrong,” King said in an interview with MAKERS Interview 2012. “Everyone who played tennis was white. The clothes were white, the shoes were white, the socks were white, the balls were white. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Where is everyone else?’” At that moment, King set himself a goal. “And that was the fight for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women, and that was to be my life’s work.”
In 1961, at the age of 17, King gained international recognition when she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest couple win a Wimbledon title in women’s doubles. King enrolled at California State University in Los Angeles that same year. But unlike male tennis champions Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, who both received full scholarships, King worked two jobs to pay for college. “Now do you think anyone took care of it?” King asked. “I guarantee you, if it were the other way around, you would have heard the whole world go mad. We can’t understand inclusion until we’ve been excluded, and then we learn.”
In 1973, the year following the passage of Title IX, King played one of the world’s greatest male players, Bobby Riggs. Titled “battle of the sexes,” more than 90 million viewers from all over the world tuned in to see the game. “I knew I had to play him. I knew the exposure would be extreme. I knew I had to win.” King said their strategy was simple but effective. “And that was taking him as many times as possible in five rallies, just running him into the ground. That was my job. And it worked.” King said her win that night wasn’t about tennis — it was about making social change. “That was our only moment of focus and it was visual. It wasn’t reading anything ; it wasn’t talked about. Let the thug do the talking.”
King has won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles over the course of her career. “Tennis wasn’t just tennis,” King admitted to MAKERS. “It was really a platform that allowed me to have a forum.” She used that platform to create the Ladies Tennis Association and successfully campaigned as President for equal prize money to be offered to men and women at the US Open. She created those too Women’s Sports Foundation to give women better access to sport. When Title IX was passed in 1972, only 15% of college athletes were women. According to the Women’s Sports Foundationwomen now make up 44% of NCAA athletes.
“We can celebrate how far we’ve come and take a close look at the work that lies ahead,” King said during her speech in June. “The main beneficiaries of Title IX were white suburban girls. Let’s use this milestone anniversary to renew our focus on strengthening and promoting equal opportunities and opportunities for all girls and women, but especially for those left behind by the law, including girls of color, girls with disabilities, trans athletes and… of all LGBTQ+ youth. We have to look ahead.”
The day after King’s speech, President Biden and the Department of Education proposed new changes Expand Title IX protections for victims of sexual discrimination and LGBTQI+ students. As expected, the new proposal has sparked debate and is likely to face lawsuits. But King says the skills she used on the tennis court are the same ones that can help change mindsets. “I have to be nimble, I have to adapt, I have to think, I have to strategize. All the things you use in real life are right there.”