One cannot overlook the importance of sports in daily life. Sports teach many essential values which reshape the foundation of human society. Sports teach individuals aspects of morality, honesty and humility. Additionally, sports can also help combat poverty by giving underprivileged individuals opportunities to earn a steady income. This is the case for several athletes today, including Serena and Venus Williams, Mike Tyson and Novak Djokovic. However, due to rampant gender inequality, escaping extreme poverty through sports has not always been an option for women. However, Billie Jean King, a renowned female tennis player, has been working to reduce gender inequality in sports, and subsequently, reduce poverty.
The History of Tennis
Tennis dates back to 12th century France, thus resulting in the future interpretation of the sport being extremely aristocratic. Tennis has a focus on etiquette through its equipment, clothing, judgment and skills. Due to the upper-class nature of the sport, women often experienced exclusion from the game. Then, when they finally could play, there was a significant difference in pay scale between men and women – that is, until trailblazer Billie Jean King entered the court.
Billie Jean King’s Tennis Career
Billie Jean King was born Billie Jean Moffitt on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. She grew up in a lower-class family, with her mother being a homemaker and her father being a firefighter. At age 11, King began to play tennis. She later told her mother, “ I am going to be No. 1 in the world.”
King won her age bracket in the Southern California championship at age 15. Roughly 10 years later, King and Susman were the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon doubles title. From 1966 to 1968, she won the major singles title at Wimbledon. She also claimed the title of #1-ranked women’s tennis player five times in the years 1967, 1968, 1971, 1972 and 1974. Between 1961 and 1979, King won Wimbledon 20 times, playing both singles and doubles. She also claimed 13 U.S. titles, four French titles and two Australian titles.
Despite these record-setting accomplishments, King’s prize money was minimal compared to men’s tennis. To show her indignation toward gender inequality, King broke away from the tennis establishment in protest. Although she began to advocate for higher pay, her U.S. Open win in 1972 supported the opposite. After receiving $15,000 less than the male champion, she declared that if the prize money was not equal the following year, she would not play. King then formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, and, as a result, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prizes to its players. However, this was not enough for King.
“Battle of the Sexes”
King wanted her campaign for gender equality to receive worldwide recognition. As a result, she agreed to play a match against the former number one tennis player Bobby Riggs. Bobby Riggs was a strong advocate against gender equality in tennis, claiming that women were naturally inferior, thus, the difference in pay was a reasonable policy. On September 20, 1973, 90 million people worldwide tuned in on the tennis match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” This tennis match would determine the fate of female athletes for decades.
Despite the weight of the world on her shoulders, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, and earned the prize money of $100,000.
Towards the end of her career, King became the leading advocate for gender equality. She founded World TeamTennis (WTT) and the Women’s Sports Foundation; she also promoted the strategy of gender mainstreaming throughout the United Nations. In honor of King’s incredible career, President Barack Obama presented King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the USTA National Tennis Center in New York was named after her.
King’s career seems focused on improving gender inequality in sports and other career fields worldwide, but, during an interview, King expressed that the message she wanted to share was about the cause-and-effect relationship between gender inequality and poverty. During the interview, she stated, “I’m thrilled about the money, but I don’t think about the money. I do think about the money if there’s a message – like with equal prize money…The message is important because 60 percent of girls in this world are not getting educated. You’ve got all this poverty. Any time a woman is in poverty, it means her boys and her girls are in poverty. So microfinancing is important. It sends a message of equality, and I want equality for everybody…overall, the challenge is still girls and women because we’re so underserved.”
Other Athletes Working to Eradicate Poverty
The dedication of Billie Jean King not only opened the doors for female athletes but also influenced other athletes to dedicate themselves to ending poverty.
Anne Guerrant, a former pro-tennis player and a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association – with Billie Jean King – had the inspiration to become a global philanthropist dedicated to lifting women and their families out of poverty. In 2006, Guerrant founded the k to provide micro-loans to women in lower-income communities.
Billie Jean King inspired Venus and Serena Williams, who are sisters and fellow tennis athletes, to create several organizations dedicated to assisting children in low-income communities. They created the Yetunde Price Resource Center to end violence in low-income communities. Additionally, Serena Williams established the Serena Williams Fund and Serena Ventures to provide money, equipment and lessons to tennis players in poverty-stricken areas.
Overall, Billie Jean King was a trailblazer who inspired millions. She used tennis to fight gender inequality and reduce poverty for women. Through her work, she created an open court for several other professional female tennis players to support gender equality and the elimination of poverty.
– Sania Patel