Billie Jean King goes ‘All In’ on tennis and women’s equality

Tennis legend Billie Jean King’s activism brought greater respect and higher pay to women’s sports, but she felt forced to hide her sexuality. 


While reading tennis legend Billie Jean King’s unflinchingly honest new autobiography, “All In: An Autobiography,” one message becomes clear: To inspire change, you have to first make a racket. Now in her late 70s, the former No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, who long ago proved her reach extends far beyond the tennis court, doesn’t hold back, declaring, “Even if you’re not a born activist, life can ... sure make you one.”

The book’s title refers to King’s determination to stick with something once she makes up her mind. It’s what led her to commit to tennis despite the fact that women’s sports were treated infinitely less seriously than men’s, and even top players were expected to leave the game in their prime, get married, and have children. 

Although she did marry Larry King, a fellow tennis player from California State University Los Angeles in 1965 (the two are no longer married, but he’s still a close friend), she didn’t let societal pressures dissuade her from her goals. 

In addition to her 39 career Grand Slam titles, she earned an enduring place in popular culture when she beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, which was broadcast to a national audience. It’s still the most-watched tennis match ever.

King is considered one of the greatest women’s players of all time, but perhaps her most important legacy will be the way she’s used her platform as a tennis star to become an agent for social change. 

Modern tennis stars like the sensational Naomi Osaka and the formidable Serena Williams (herself the topic of another new book, Gerald Marzorati’s “Seeing Serena,” an unauthorized look at her 2019 comeback season) have been able to expect equal pay and opportunities in part because of the trailblazing King. The central organizing body of the women’s professional tour, the Women’s Tennis Association, was born when King and other top female players took a stand against pay inequity.

Readers can expect to learn about King’s emotions during historic matches (she was famously a fiery force on the court) and also about her experiences with other tennis icons over the years, including Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. She discusses her training under the legendary Alice Marble and her long-standing (and perhaps still burning) rivalry with Australian champion Margaret Smith Court. But King, still as much of a tennis lover as ever, doesn’t hesitate to comment on contemporary players; she applauds Roger Federer for his willingness to thwart gender-based stereotypes and openly show emotion, a characteristic of the Swiss star player discussed in Christopher Clarey’s new biography, “The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer.”

As she tells her riveting personal stories against the backdrop of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, King provides context, reminding us that these were very different times indeed. While it was difficult to be a woman, it was far more challenging to be gay. The tennis champ was forced to make some hard decisions about her marriage and what secrets to keep in order to protect her career. 

For years, she lived under the spirit-crushing weight of hiding a part of herself from the world. “You submerge your true self,” King says about being closeted. “You make swaths of yourself invisible.” She is openly critical of some of her past choices, never hesitating to give her old self a good dressing-down, but it’s done with a sense of understanding and, ultimately, forgiveness. She proclaims that now, as an openly gay woman, she feels a sense of freedom (her life partner of 40 years is Ilana Kloss, a former professional tennis player from South Africa). 

King continues to use her voice to inspire change. She sees this autobiography – she has written several books about tennis and a previous autobiography in 1982 – as a step in her personal liberation, a feeling that’s infused into this book’s every word. 

It’s clear King was ready to tell her whole story, which she does with great self-awareness and humility, but never for one moment does she deny her rightful place in tennis history. 

At the end of the acknowledgments, King, as full of conviction as ever, states firmly, “We are not done yet.” Looking at her career, it’s easy to believe that statement. Invigorating and deeply moving, “All In” is the best sports book of the year, leaving readers anticipating what King will serve up next.

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