Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
6. Billie Jean King
Years played: 1959–1983
Titles: 78 (per WTA website)
Major titles: 12
How do you quantify the career of Billie Jean King purely as a tennis player? This is a woman, after all, who was called by one prominent sportswriter, “the most important athlete of the 20th century.” By now few would disagree. Whatever we have to say about King on court is bound to be reductive, but that doesn’t mean her game wasn’t boundary-breaking in its own way.
While she hailed from tennis-rich Southern California, young Billie Jean Moffitt was an outsider to this upper-class sport. She was a fireman’s daughter who learned the game on the public courts of Long Beach, and, much to the chagrin of the clubby local authorities, she wore a homemade pair of shorts, rather than a skirt, for a junior group photo. King was also just 5’5”; how could anyone play the California-style “Big Game”—i.e., serve and volley—at that height?
Watch: Billie Jean King speaks at the 2017 US Open
From her debut at 16 in 1959 to her retirement as the self-proclaimed “Old Lady” of the WTA in 1983, King showed exactly how well that big game could be played at any size. She was an unceasing attacker who used speed rather than stature to cover the net and pressure opponents. She was also a more overtly passionate and emotional player than her most of her reserved amateur-era opponents; she threw herself into every shot, and into every match. But as King showed in her most famous victory, over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, she was also a savvy tactician who could adapt her game to her opponent.
King’s first breakthrough came in 1962, and it was fittingly brazen. At 18, in her second Wimbledon, she upset the top seed, Margaret Smith (soon to be Court), in the first round. That was the start of a decade-long rivalry between the conservative Australian and the progressive American.
While Court took home the lion’s share of titles, King more than held her own. She won Wimbledon five times, including three in a row from 1966 to ’68; she completed a career Grand Slam; and, true to her forward-thinking ways, she was the first woman to win a major title using a steel racquet, at Forest Hills in 1967. Even as younger stars like Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong arrived, the Old Lady stayed a step ahead of them through the mid-’70s. And even as the rest of the tour backed toward the baseline, King used her old-fashioned attack to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1982 and 1983, when she was nearly 40.
As with her friend Arthur Ashe, it’s hard to know what King’s career statistics would look like if she hadn’t done so much work beyond the confines of the court. But she did a lot within the game’s lines, too. She showed that it was OK for the women, and men, of this decorous sport to play with passion and let the world know how much they wanted to win. And she showed that anyone—man or woman, tall or not tall, insider or outsider—could play a big game.
Defining Moment: King’s defining moment was also a defining moment for the world—her win over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. “Pressure is a privilege,” King likes to say, and she would know. That day she was playing, and winning, for half the planet.
Follow the men’s and women’s countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.
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