“American Masters: Billie Jean King” celebrates a legend

Tonight on PBS, Billie Jean King is the focus of an American Masters profile that is not just about Billie as a tennis player, but as a feminist, an activist, a businesswoman, a lesbian, a wife, a partner, and an inspiration. If you’re one of those people who have little interest in sports, you’ll still find this look at a legendary woman completely worth your time.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Billie but aren’t aware of her story. Tonight’s American Masters has Billie narrating alongside her brother, past teammates like Rosie Casals, other pro players such as Chris Evert, friend Elton John, Hillary Clinton, successors like Venus Williams, Bobby Riggs‘ son and coach, and her partner in both life and business, Ilana Kloss. Everyone interviewed has a different perspective on Billie’s personal and professional influence on the sport as well as women’s liberation.

Billie and her brother start by talking about their parents, their father being very athletic and working two jobs to make sure his children could have anything or do anything they wanted. While they were still somewhat poor, Billie felt like she could find a way to partake in the things she wanted, which ended up being tennis after her friend invited her to play tennis at her country club. Billie fell in love with “running, jumping, and hitting balls” which she said are “three of her favorite things.” So she saved up for a racquet (lavender, her favorite color) by doing odd jobs for her neighbors and started taking free tennis courses at the public park.

“My dad always believed in me as much as my brother,” Billie said, adding she told her parents she was going to become the best player in the world. She began practicing at the park all day during the summer, from 9 a.m. until 10 at night. From a young age, Billie was obsessive about being the best, which ended up making her the best.

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A winner of all of the most important tournaments in women’s tennis, Billie talks about the struggles of being a female in professional sports during the ’70s. Despite drawing as big of crowds as their male counterparts, the women were awarded less prize money and faced sexist questions from reporters, like “How long are you going to keep this tennis thing up? When will you take some time off to have babies?” Billie called this period “shamateurism.”

What happened from the discrimination was The Original 9, a group of fed-up female tennis players that split from the USLTA to do their own Virginia Slims tour. Around the same time, Billie said she was aligning herself with the women’s liberation movement and encouraged Gloria Steinem to use her and the other female players as physical embodiments of what feminism is.

“I used to sit with Gloria and say ‘You’re not using us enough!’” Billie said, explaining they were highly-visible in the public eye and using their minds and bodies to do things just like men were and still not valued as much. And from there comes the part of the story that most people know well: Retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs came forward to criticize the women players and challenge Billie or any of the other top players to a match.

Watching interviews with Bobby from the time time (1971) is maddening, as he has nothing but misogynistic views and reporters seem to eat it up. Billie refused to compete against him at first, but another player, Margaret Cort, took him on, and lost. After that, Billie felt like she had to do it, and she had to win. And she did.

After this victory, Billie suffered a setback when she was outed by her secretary/former lover Marilyn. Her (now ex) husband Larry King said he had no idea they were more than professional, saying “I didn’t love her any less.” But he ended up divorcing Billie. (They seem to be on OK terms today.) In clips from a press conference at the time, Billie explains her relationship with Marilyn was over and she apologized and thanked her parents for their support.

“If I knew I were gay I would never have married Larry,” Billie said. “I wouldn’t do that to him and put him through hell afterwards.”

Besides losing her husband, she lost sponsorships and other opportunities she couldn’t put a price on. Although it wasn’t the way she wanted to come out, Billie said she would have come out eventually.

“That’s why I would never out anybody. I just don’t think it’s right,” Billie said. “When my body was ready I would have come out. ”

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There were eventual positives to come out of the situation, though, as Hillary Clinton notes about Billie, “Now she’s not only viewed as an icon of women’s rights but of gay rights.” Billie’s brother says she was noticeably happier after being out, too. And now she’s been with her partner Ilana, another former tennis player, for 34 years.

“I thought my parents might reject me,” Billie said. “It’s taken time but [my mom's] fantastic now.”

“Being outed helped her,” Elton John said. “They are a twosome they work brilliantly together,” he adds about Billie and Ilana.

Ilana said she liked that Billie was “kind to everybody.” Billie enjoys that Ilana is “funny, loyal and responsible.” Together they own and run a co-ed professional league called World Team Tennis. Billie says she’s just the face of the organization, and Ilana is the one running the show.

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Billie Jean King’s story is one of multiple successes, as inspiring as Diana Nyad‘s recent achievement swimming across the Florida Straits, or as Ellen DeGeneres‘s “Puppy Episode.” American Masters puts a spotlight on someone who deserves to be a household name. In many households, she already is. Here’s hoping she continues to be.

American Masters: Billie Jean King airs tonight on PBS.

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