The Story of Billie Jean King for Kids

Think of the best athlete in the world. Are you thinking of soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo or basketball great Michael Jordan? Maybe gymnast Simone Biles or tennis superstar Serena Williams? There are definitely lots of different people you could argue are the best in their sport. They come from all different countries and sports. They represent different genders and backgrounds. 

If I asked you this same question about 70 years ago, you would have had a lot fewer options to pick from. And one thing’s for sure. You would have almost surely named a male athlete. This is because, in the 1950s, the greatest sports legends, and basically the only sports legends were men. 

It was very rare for women to play professional sports. When they did, they were told that they weren’t as competitive or fun to watch as the men playing the same sport as them. This meant that young girls had nobody to look up to. They had no Naomi Osaka or Alex Morgan to dream of becoming. 

A young girl named Billie Jean King was growing up in those days. She loved sports. She was born in California in 1943 into a family of athletes. Seriously, at least one of her family members had excelled at just about every sport you can think of. Her mother was a swimmer, and her father did basketball, baseball, and track. Her younger brother played baseball, and he even became a pitcher in Major League Baseball. 

Today, we might think that  Billie Jean was born to be an athlete. But this was 70 years ago. So, it was something of a surprise when Billie Jean wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps and be an athlete. 

Her family’s skills meant that she had high expectations and big shoes to fill. But, it didn’t take long before Billie Jean was proving she was every bit the talented athlete as the rest of her family. 

She started in softball. And she was really good at it. So good that when she was only 10 years old, she was playing with teenagers. It didn’t matter that they were bigger and stronger. She was still a strong competitor. 

After seeing one of her friends playing tennis, though, Billie Jean traded her softball bat for a tennis racquet. With that first swing at 11 years old, Billie Jean swiftly showed that she was definitely made to be a tennis player. 

She even told her mom that she was going to become the best tennis player in the world. Not the best women’s tennis player, not even the best women’s athlete, but the best tennis player in the world. 

There was one slight problem. Nobody really paid much attention to women’s tennis players, or really any women playing professional sports. So Billie Jean didn’t have anybody to model her career after. She had no female superstar athletes paving the way for her. Nope, she was going to have to do it all herself. Young Billie Jean had lots of challenges ahead of her. She was definitely going to have to prove that she was a tough opponent on the court.

But what she didn’t know was that some of her toughest battles would be off the court.

Still, Billie Jean knew in her heart that tennis was her sport. She was ready to start training. She was ready to start the path to become the best tennis player in the world. Not so fast, said reality! Her first off-court opponent was quick to show up. And it  stopped Billie Jean in her tracks. 

At the time, tennis was a pretty expensive sport. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, and her parents didn’t think they would be able to afford all of the equipment that she needed to start playing tennis. Billie Jean was used to overcoming an opponent with skill or endurance. That couldn’t help her this time.

But what could help her was persistence and hard work. Billie Jean decided that she would earn the money herself. She asked her neighbors if she could do jobs for them. Slowly, she ended up saving the money to buy herself her first racquet.

One opponent down. She had a racquet. She was ready to start practicing. She took free tennis lessons offered in her hometown of Long Beach, California. 

After a couple years of practice, Billie Jean was getting better and better. At age 14, she even won a championship tournament in Southern California! She was proving to herself and everyone around her that she was an athlete. And a great one.

But more opponents popped up off the court.  People criticized the way she played. They said she played too aggressively for a young girl. Billie Jean couldn’t help that she was a girl. No matter how well she performed, the boys around her were getting much more attention and praise. Billie Jean was frustrated. 

The criticism that she faced because of her gender continued to build. Then, as a teenager, she played in a big tennis tournament. At the end, they gathered all of the players for a photo.   Except for Billie Jean.

Why was she excluded from the photo?  At that time in tennis, women played in a traditional skirt. Billie Jean wore shorts. She was more comfortable and could play better in them. But she wasn’t allowed to be in the photo. Not unless she wore a skirt. Like girls were supposed to wear.

She felt like many people were rooting against her. The people in charge of tournaments didn’t want her to be noticed for her success. Despite this little loss, she kept playing throughout all of high school, and by the time she was ready to go to college, Billie Jean was ranked as one of the best women’s tennis players in the whole country. 

Even though she was winning almost every match in every tournament she joined, she made less prize money than the men who won the exact same tournaments. The people around her told her that she was a very good tennis player…for a girl. 

The college she went to wouldn’t even give her a scholarship just because she was a girl! She won every match she could, but still she felt that her gender was the one rival she would never be able to vanquish. 

Billie Jean was starting to realize that her childhood dream of being the best tennis player in the world was going to be much more difficult than she thought. She accepted that it would be difficult, but she did not accept that it would be impossible. 

Billie Jean was already fighting hard on the court. Now she was ready to start fighting back just as hard off the court. When she thought about her childhood dream, she didn’t just want to be the best tennis player in the world for herself. She wanted to be the best player in the world so she could make sports equal for all the girls who followed in her tennis-playing footsteps. 

To do this, Billie Jean would have to start playing more and bigger tournaments. So that’s exactly what she did. In 1961, when she was 18 years old, she competed in her first Wimbledon tournament. Wimbledon is an annual tennis tournament held in London, and it’s basically the World Cup of tennis. It’s one of the biggest and most watched tournaments all over the world every year. 

Billie Jean and her tennis partner Karen Hantz Susman became the youngest pair to ever win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title. After that, she didn’t stop. She kept winning. For the next 20 years almost, it seemed like Billie Jean won every match she played. 

In 1966, she won her first major singles championship at the Wimbledon tournament. And then she won again in 1967. And again in 1968. She went on to win a record-winning total of 20 Wimbledon titles in her career, which she still holds the record for today. 

Her victories spanned the whole world. From 1961 when she won that first Wimbledon, until 1979, Billie Jean won 13 titles at the major tennis tournament in the United States, four at the one in France, and two at the one in Australia, and 20 – yes, 20 – from Wimbledon.  

Even without doing the  math, we can all agree that those added up to a lot of wins for Billie Jean. Most importantly, she achieved that special goal that she told her mother about when she was a young girl. For a total of 6 years, Billie Jean King was ranked as the best women’s tennis player in the world. 

She’d made a name for herself. Now Billie Jean wanted to use the fame and reputation she’d earned on the court to start tackling some of the challenges and problems she’d dealt with off the court.

She first created an association specifically for women playing in tennis. She wanted to make the sport equal between mens and womens players, not only for herself, but for the women she was competing against, and for the thousands of young girls who might one day break the records she was setting. 

With this new Women’s Tennis Association, Billie Jean started a campaign to make prize money equal for both men and women at all these tournaments. At one point, Billie Jean even said she would stop playing in tournaments that would not offer the same amount of prize money. Unless they offered up some equality off the court, Billie Jean would not play. And without Billie Jean, less people came to see these tournaments.  

So the United States Open in 1973 became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both men and women thanks to Billie Jean. This was a big deal! It’s rare, even today, for male athletes and female athletes to earn the same amount of money. Billie Jean’s hard work and international success was changing some people’s minds. 

Of course, not everybody was happy with these changes. One of them was an older men’s tennis player. His name was Bobby Riggs. Bobby was especially upset with Billie Jean. He insisted that men’s tennis was better than women’s tennis. He boasted that he could beat any of the best female players, Billie Jean included. Even though he had been retired from the sport for almost 20 years, he challenged Billie Jean to a tennis match. The winner would get $100,000! And almost as importantly, they would get bragging rights. 

Billie Jean had never been one to back away from a challenge. She had changed the game of tennis and made it better for women. She had paid for her own equipment, been excluded from tournament photos, and spent decades training. Was she going to back down now? Of course, she accepted. 

People were very excited. They nicknamed the match the “Battle of the Sexes.” They put it on TV for the whole country to watch! It was the most watched tennis match ever. This meant that the stakes were even higher for Billie Jean. Could she beat a male tennis player? Could she show everybody watching that women were just as good at sports as men? 

On September 20 in 1973 Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs very easily. But it wasn’t her only victory. Her tougher victory was the respect she won for women by the thousands of viewers across the world. People were starting to agree with 11-year-old Billie Jean. Finally, it seemed that Billie Jean could claim the title of the best tennis player. 

Since then, Billie Jean has retired. She set up the Women’s Sports Foundation and a co-ed tennis team to make sure women would always have a place in professional sports. She continues to advocate for women in professional sports.

Billie Jean’s victories are one reason that we have many successful women’s athletes that we can look up to today. People like Simone Biles, Alex Morgan, and Serena Williams aren’t great athletes in spite of being women. They are the greatest athletes because they are women. And that’s something that Billie Jean worked hard to prove.  

So the next time you hear someone say, “They’re pretty good . . . for a girl,” remind them of Billie Jean King. Who was a pretty good athlete. Period.