Dressed in a light pink suit, a dark turtleneck underneath, neck lined with pearls, and her signature short haircut, it was hard to believe that the woman gracing the podium at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center was none other than tennis legend and exponent of equal rights, Billie Jean King.
Best known for winning a total of 39 Grand Slam titles, achieving victory against Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, and co-founding the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) with her ex-husband Larry King (“not that Larry King,” she quipped), King spoke at the annual Susan B. Anthony Birthday Luncheon on Feb. 11.
Sponsored by the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, the event invited King to speak on how her life was influenced by Anthony (who would be celebrating her 196th birthday), and her overall hopes not just for women in sports, but for women in society.
Before King began her keynote address, she couldn’t help but to honor the event’s M.C., Janet Lomax, who King cited as “the first African-American woman to do the nightly news” in Rochester. That was theme of the afternoon: King’s knack for shining the spotlight on history, emphasizing her belief in the importance of its study. “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself, I try to convince [young people],” King said.
Before going over the most pivotal moments of her own history, King marveled at the revolutionary Susan B. Anthony and her style of leadership. Reminiscing about her experience in Anthony’s Rochester home, King reveled in Anthony’s ability to “have time to think and be present.” Although King discussed how it would be “so much fun” for her to “be a millennial,” she argued that the over-stimulation our society experiences from the media can be detrimental.
King then followed her ode to Anthony by enlightening the audience of her own epiphany that set her mind on the struggle for equality. She recalled a time when she was 11 years old, on a tennis court in her native Long Beach, California. “I started thinking that everyone who played was white. I said to myself, ‘Where is everybody else?’ That day, I decided I would spend the rest of my life fighting for equal rights for all.”
Later, King explained one of her equal pay campaigns. After winning the 1968 Wimbledon Championships, she was paid a mere 750 pounds for the defeat, while her male counterpart received a loftier 2000-pound check for the victory. King applauded the work of women’s tennis phenom Venus Williams, who was instrumental in closing that gap in 2007, especially when Williams appeared before the Grand Slam Committee and pleaded for the equal stipend.
Being the closeted historian that she is, King then matter-of-factly addressed the reality that women couldn’t have credit cards until 1973. “You know they have that saying: ‘Women love to shop until they drop.’ Well, they were missing out on a lot of money during those days,” King said.
She then continued to address how offended she becomes when others approach her with the words: “Thank you for all you’ve done for women’s tennis.” Right as she began to describe why this is distasteful, she heard what her breathing sounded like on the microphone. She became flustered, and although King comes off as a millennial at heart, someone who is always looking forward, she couldn’t help but portray her actual age from her comedic interactions with the microphone. Although King digressed instead of specifying, one could speculate that she believes she’s achieved much more for the sport itself rather than just for women.
In closing her address, King told her audience of donors and college students about what it means in her eyes to “win.” King doesn’t believe that you can only win on the tennis court—she believes you win by making history.
“98 percent of winning is showing up—and that’s all of yourself: your head, heart and guts. And that’s how you win by making history—minute by minute, moment by moment,” King concluded.
King continued the final, motivational portion of her address by empowering everyone sitting in the convention center to always think of themselves as influencers. “You are never going to know how someone is going to touch your life or how you will touch theirs,” she said.
But before she left the stage, King had one last promise, and that was to hit some signed tennis balls into the convention center. Although King is well past her prime, she hit those balls with just as much gusto as she had back in 1968. King may have the physique of a 72-year-old, but her heart and soul will be forever young.