Not only is Billie Jean King arguably the greatest female tennis player the world has ever seen, she's also considered, along with Gloria Steinem, one of the godmothers of modern-day feminism. And now, she's the first sports figure to ever be given the "American Masters" documentary treatment by PBS (Sept. 10 at 8 p.m.).
"She's my hero," said series' creator Susan Lacy, upon introducing King at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills on Tuesday. "Or as she likes to say, my 'she-ro'."
The next 40 minutes saw King dominate a room of hardened reporters (even making them laugh!) with her keen insights into the nature of sexism, the future of women's tennis and stories of what it was like to beat tennis legend Bobby Riggs in a highly publicized 1973 match dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes."
King, who during her career won 39 Grand Slam titles and founded the Women's Tennis Assn., pointed out that the match took place a year after Title IX (the law that prohibited federally funded activities or educational programs to discriminate on the basis of sex) passed, and that she was concerned with the amount of energy that was being put into weakening that legislation.
"In 1972 a woman couldn't get a credit card without their husband co-signing for them," said King, 69. "I knew I had to win. It was a turning point — a moment of truth. I wasn't just playing for myself. I was playing for everybody."
King said she always told Riggs that the match was about history and change, and that Riggs would reply, "No, honey, it's about money and hustling."
After her legendary win, King and Riggs maintained a close friendship until his death in 1995. The night before he died, King spoke to him on the phone and he said, "I guess we really did change things."
That change is part of what the "American Masters" profile of King brings to life, said Lacy. As a top athlete King entered one of the most dominantly male realms possible and held her own. In doing so she inspired generations of women, and even changed the way generations of men went about raising their daughters.
"There is little more revolutionary than for a woman to become physically strong," King said.
Also integral to King's story is the fact she is a lesbian and kept the fact hidden (even from herself, as she tells it) for the better part of her career. When she was outed in the 1980s she called a press conference to verify that it was true, which at the time was another unprecedented move, and made her the first prominent female athlete to come out as gay.
When asked if she wonders what it would be like to be growing up as a female tennis star today, King laughed.
"It would be so much fun," she said. "I can be much more my authentic self today."
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