Professional tennis icon Billie Jean King, who helped bring women's sports into the limelight, talked about how far women's athletics has come in the last 40 years during her July 30 keynote address to hundreds of teenage girls at the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy on the Saint Mary's campus.
"When I was 13, I was told that I couldn't be the No. 1 tennis player in the world because I wore glasses," said King, who won a record 20 singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon in the 1960s and '70s. "It's a good thing I didn't listen. I had to listen instead to my inner voice telling me that I could."
King was introduced by Julie Foudy, the academy's founder and a captain of the U.S. women's soccer team that won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals from 1991 to 2004.
"Billie Jean King's philosophy is to leave the world a better place, and she has â€“ through much more than her athletic accomplishments," Foudy said, noting that Life magazine named King one of the most influential 100 individuals of the 20th century.
King, a multi-sport star in Long Beach during the 1950s, faced many obstacles. She grew up in an era when fewer than one in 20 American girls participated in high school sports. Today, one in three girls do - in no small part because of King's successes on the court and the risks she took to bring attention to gender discrimination in sports.
When the Association of Tennis Professionals sought in 1970 to capitalize on tennis' growing popularity by founding the sport's first pro league, King asked if it would be open to women.
"They said no, that no one would pay a dime to watch us play," King recalled.
Believing there was an audience for women's tennis, King and eight other top women players found corporate sponsorship and signed $1 contracts to play in a series of tournaments.
"We were scared to death," King said. "The tennis association suspended us and other players ostracized us."
The tournaments' success led to the formation of a women's tennis league in 1973, which now boasts internationally renowned athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams. King noted that the top women's players, who earn major revenue for promoters and sponsors, went from making $14 a day in 1970 to several million dollars a year today.
In one of the most highly publicized episodes in modern sports history, King defeated former men's No. 1 tennis player Bobby Riggs in the nationally televised 1973 "Battle of the Sexes."
"Everyone in the country was talking about it," King remembered.
King's victory bolstered support for Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibited sexual discrimination in any organization that received federal money, including college and high school athletic departments. King said she viewed her efforts as part of the wider campaign to open doors for women everywhere.
"It wasn't just about tennis, it was about society. It was very important to get hearts and minds behind Title IX."
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