The epiphany, Billie Jean King recalled, came when she was 12.
Kicking back one afternoon at the Los Angeles Tennis Club near her home, the youngster noticed one dominant color around the courts.
“I noticed everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls,” King recalled Wednesday. “And everybody who played was white. At 12 I asked the question — ‘Where’s everybody else?’”
And with that, the goal of becoming No. 1 in the world was knocked down a peg.
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“I promised myself that if I was good enough,” she said, “I would work on equal rights and opportunities for men and women, boys and girls. For all.”
Sixty years later, King found herself earlier this month addressing the NFL’s first women’s summit, held during Super Bowl week. Next month, she’ll take part in a women’s symposium sponsored by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
The road to equality still has trails to blaze, and King never tires of the journey.
“It’s really been my whole life since,” said King, back among the sport she knows best when she became the newest member of the Professional Tennis Registry’s Hall of Fame. Formal induction came during the organization’s annual awards banquet at the Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head Island.
She becomes the fifth member of the fledgling hall, which honors the teachers and coaches in the sport. The late Arthur Ashe was last year’s inductee, preceded by Jim Verdieck, Dr. Jim Loehr and PTR founder Dennis Van der Meer — King’s coach at the time of her “Battle of the Sexes” triumph over Bobby Riggs.
In the tennis boom that followed, King and Van der Meer established the Tennis America camps that set an early standard in group teaching. King also was the first female to coach male professional athletes, as coach for the Philadelphia Freedoms in World Team Tennis, which she helped establish. And King also spent more than a decade coaching U.S. players at the Fed Cup and Olympic Games.
Certainly, her induction had to be a matter of time. Beyond her many coaching and teaching accomplishments, she has a long history with Hilton Head.
“Gosh, there are so many memories,” King said, throwing her head back in mock exasperation as she discussed Shipyard Racquet Club’s formative years.
When Van der Meer was hired as head professional for the new facility, King came along as the club’s touring pro. She helped design the Shipyard facility, took part in the 1971 groundbreaking and spent hours sharpening her skills.
And it was on those courts where King spent plenty of time preparing for her November 1973 showdown against Riggs.
Given the chance to have a coach on the sideline, King chose Van der Meer.
“I wanted him there,” she recalled. “I knew he could tell me anything and I’d be like, ‘I got it.’ It was a very tough time to play that match. It was a very difficult environment, a lot riding on it. Social change. It wasn’t about tennis.”
King always has been good about seeing the big picture. One year earlier, the aging Riggs had beaten Margaret Court in the first “Battle of the Sexes.” But Court was herself coming out of retirement, prompting skepticism about the result.
Not only was King atop the women’s game, she had been among the leaders in establishing the Virginia Slims professional circuit. Adding to the intrigue, Congress had just passed Title IX to combat gender discrimination.
“That’s why I wanted to win that match,” she said, adding that her concerns went beyond the sports realm. Before Title IX, she noted, classroom quotas in many colleges limited aspiring female doctors and lawyers to 5 percent of those accepted.
“I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match my philosophy on life when I was 12.”
King beat Riggs in straight sets, a result that not only elevated the women’s rights movement but the game of tennis.
That match is the subject of a new movie set to go into production in April. Titled “Battle of the Sexes,” it stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. Producer Danny Boyle approached King with the project two years ago, with Simon Beaufoy (“Hunger Games”) writing the script.
“I think I’m just spoiled rotten to even have this considered,” she said. “But it changed everything in our sport.”