Growing up in Long Beach, Billie Jean King saves $8.29 in a Mason jar to buy her first tennis racquet, using nail polish to hold its fraying strings together. She learns the sport on public courts near her home. Someday she’ll be the best tennis player in the world, she tells her parents.
When she retires from professional play in 1984, King has logged 71 career titles including 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles — a record 20 at Wimbledon. She is an outspoken advocate for equality in sports and the first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a season. Her 1973 match with Bobby Riggs, “The Battle of the Sexes,” captivates the world and is the subject of an eponymous 2017 movie.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ranks her Number 5 on its list of Top 40 Athletes. Life Magazine names her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” in 1990. A champion for social change, she is the creator of numerous tennis clinics for underprivileged kids and serves as the honorary lifetime president of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. John’s song “Philadelphia Freedom” is written for her.
King says coming out publicly as a lesbian was her “longest, hardest journey.” She is now an international leader in seeking recognition and equal rights for gays and lesbians. President Obama presents her with a Medal of Freedom in 2009.
TOP PHOTO: Billie Jean King’s biography from the Program for the inaugural California Hall of Fame Induction