By Madeline Ladd ’25
6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Six was the lucky number for tennis star Billie Jean King on September 20, 1973. On this date, she claimed victory in the famed Battle of the Sexes against former No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The consequences of the match were not only a winner-take-all $100,000 victory for King on the court but a victory for women across the nation. King’s defeat of Riggs sent shockwaves through the media and legitimized women’s tennis. Her shining moment and others before it launched King’s fight for parity into the worldwide limelight. This type of extensive coverage, however, was not always the case for her. Media portrayal of Billie Jean King shifted throughout the decade. Coverage transitioned from newspaper articles with a judging undertone about her manly style of play to a discussion in magazines of her role as a women’s rights activist following the passing of Title IX legislation and the Battle of the Sexes.
Growing up in a typical middle-class family in Long Beach, California, King’s mother raised her to be a housewife. However, a young Billie had a different agenda for herself (1). After trying tennis in fifth grade at the recommendation of a friend, she was hooked on the sport and the skills it taught her. Despite her love of gameplay, King “deplored the haughtiness of tennis culture” and made it explicit at a young age that she would use her platform one day to represent the unrepresented (1). King could be found on the court every day, practicing with the same intensity she possessed to eventually win thirty-nine Grand Slam titles and twenty Wimbledons.
King made waves in the tennis world early, winning her first big match at fifteen and quickly graduating to the national level. Two images, taken only nine years apart, demonstrate the shift in King’s status and influence. The first image, photographed at the Wimbledon Championships in 1964, depicts King lunging aggressively toward the ball in her feminine tennis dress. Her movements were dubbed as masculine, which starkly contrasted the ladylike style of play characteristic of most women at the time (2). This unique style of play, while highly controversial, put King on the map.
Flash forward to the second image from 1973, when King co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show with “The Greatest of All Time” Muhammad Ali. King is seen seated next to Ali, extending her fist in a humorously exaggerated punch to his jaw as Mike Douglas looks on amused (3). The company that surrounded King speaks to her recognition at the time. Her joking nature with someone of Ali’s caliber — and reputation — demonstrates her boldness and ability to find a seat at the table. These images also evidence the shift in King’s media portrayal in less than a decade — transforming public perception of her from an up-and-coming tennis player to a household name and celebrity.
Newspapers and magazines were two media entities that exemplified King’s status shift throughout the period between 1964 and 1974. Newspapers were where King first gained traction in the media, as they focused on her style and potential as a player. Before she made it “big” with her capture of the Wimbledon Singles Title in 1966, King was featured in smaller newspapers or pigeonholed to the women’s section (1). During the ‘60s, King could not be found in a big-name magazine, let alone any magazine at all. The world did not appear ready for her yet.
Despite her lack of coverage in magazines, she still was highlighted by newspapers such as The New York Times. In a 1967 article entitled Plays Tennis Like a Man, Speaks out Like Billie Jean King, King was featured for her unique style of play and position as the top-ranked women’s tennis player. The article describes King’s masculine movement and aggressive attitude both on and off the court:
“She still plays a man’s game, darting toward the net and glowering over it like an angry
bear, covering the court as a fly covers a sugar bowl, slamming serves and mixing ground shots the way Juan Marichal mixes pitches” (1).
The description of King’s tennis play exemplifies how much she played like a man. She even practiced with male tennis players since, according to her, “the men were tougher” (4). Her outspokenness was empowering to some, but appalling to others, contributing to her reputation as “tennis’ most colorful and controversial athlete” (4). NYT coverage was an achievement, but King still was not receiving the recognition she would amass in the next five years. Her greatness was doubted, evidenced by comments in the article such as those from Perry T. Jones, President of the Southern California Tennis Association: “She’s going to have to stand the test of time before she can be ranked as one of the all-time greats” (4). Doubt fueled King’s fire, and the media began to catch on to what she would become.
King’s ascension in the ranks of her sports corresponded with the early women’s movement, and her assertiveness on the court carried over to this realm. The landmark decision of Title IX passed on June 23, 1972, and helped increase gender equity and changed women’s sports forever. Six months after the decision, King was the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year in December 1972, alongside UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Both named “for their accomplishments and their symbolic importance,” the article was a structured dialogue between King and Wooden on topics of amateurism, equal representation, and politics in sports (5). The two compared and contrasted their stories in a light debate. Sportsperson of the Year demonstrated that King had “made it” by featuring her in the mother of all sports magazines. As she said, “getting the Sportsperson of the Year in 1972 was so personal for me because of Title IX. That’s what it meant for me, that times-were-a-changin” (5).
However, the award’s proximity to Title IX passage poses questions about SI’s reasons for King’s inclusion. Perhaps editors felt obligated to include a woman in light of recent events so as to not lose liberal-minded readers. Additionally, the decision to include Wooden’s and King’s recognition as one story potentially was meant to ease male readers into the idea of a woman in this title. The reasons behind the article’s structure would be an interesting topic for further research and development.
Still, Sports Illustrated maintained coverage of King regardless of their original reasoning, and the magazine wrote a large feature article on her again in 1975 — this time, all her own. This was due in part to King’s ‘73 victory at the Battle of the Sexes that cemented her as the biggest female sports superstar. Her performance of physical prowess and nerves of steel forced a reexamination of what it meant to be female and an athlete (1). Media coverage of King began to skyrocket, and women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Seventeen, and other notable names flocked to King for features and insight into her life. The ‘75 Sports Illustrated feature highlighted King as both the greatest female tennis player and a feminist icon. As writer Frank Deford said, “the fellas cannot simply let a person run around with all those assets, plus a license for passion, and not expect her to put a dent in things” (6). King was recognized in all her glory in this feature, a contrast to the ‘67 NYT article that doubted her ability to be one of the greats.
The shift from newspaper articles to features in big-time magazines demonstrates the fluidity of King’s reputation between 1964-1974. Placed in the context of events such as Title IX and the Battle of the Sexes, the media provided insight into the thoughts of the time and the rise of King’s career. Like any celebrity, media attention had the ability to place King on a pedestal, though it equally ridiculed her at times. There is a positive and negative side to every form of media, both of which can change at the drop of a hat.
Madeline Ladd is a Management Consulting major with minors in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Sports, Media, and Culture. Her article was originally written for Professor Annie Coleman’s American Studies course ‘Sports and American Culture.’
1. Ware, Susan. Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. University of North Carolina Press, 2011. https://doi.org/10.5149/9780807877999_ware.
2. Billie Jean King playing tennis at Wimbledon. Photograph. New York: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, 1964. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/96500937/.
3. Leshnov, Michael. King co-hosts “The Mike Douglas Show” with guest Muhammad Ali in 1973. Photograph. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/25083596/new-photo-exhibit-salutes-75-years-billie-jean-king.
4. Higdon, Hal. “Plays Tennis Like a Man, Speaks Out Like –Billie Jean King: Billie Jean King.” New York Times (1923-), Aug 27, 1967. http://proxy.library.nd.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/plays-tennis-like-man-speaks-out-billie-jean-king/docview/117514733/se-2.
5. Kirkpatrick, Curry. “The Ball in Two Different Courts,” Sports Illustrated, December 1972.6. Deford, Frank. “Mrs. Billie Jean King!,” Sports Illustrated, May 19, 1975.