9 Things You Didn't Know About Billie Jean King

by Allie Gemmill
Sep 22, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. ET

She's a legend on the court, and she's an unwavering activist off it. Her career in tennis spanned nearly 30 years, and in that time, she rose up to be one of the real greats in her field. She is Billie Jean King, and soon, a whole new generation will get to meet her thanks to the new film Battle of the Sexes. Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and her real-life tennis sparring partner in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, Bobby Riggs, this film will recreate and dramatize the events surrounding that match and explore the social issues immediately tied up in it: equal pay, gender equality and King's own identity as a lesbian. 

But you can't rely on Battle of the Sexes to do all the work for you; if you want to know more about King, then you need to keep reading. Our exploration of King's life may reveal some surprising tidbits about her you never knew.

1 /9: She's been a tennis whiz since age 8

1/9 :She's been a tennis whiz since age 8

King has been an avid athlete since she was a young girl. Commenting in a Day at Night interview in the mid-1970s, King said she loved to play touch football and softball and she described her sporty roots. "I just happened to get into tennis at the public parks in Long Beach [California] through a recreation department program — they gave free lessons." It's also reported she saved up all her money as a child to buy her first tennis racket for $8 around age 11; talk about dedication. 

2 /9: She remained close friends with Bobby Riggs

2/9 :She remained close friends with Bobby Riggs

Despite drawing in over 90 million viewers to see their feud on the tennis court, King and her Battle of the Sexes opponent Bobby Riggs remained friends until his death in 1995 from prostate cancer. While speaking to Today hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee, King described how she saw Riggs as kind of a tragic figure back in 1973. "He never really got the attention he deserved, and I knew that he was craving this attention, like nobody respected him when he was No. 1 in the world."


3 /9: She has a complex love life

3/9 :She has a complex love life

In the present day, King is an out gay woman who enjoys retired life with her partner, Ilana Kloss. The pair frequently pop up on each other's Instagrams, where they are often traveling or spending time with their families. Amazing!

It took a long time for King to get to the place she is now. Right out of college, she married her college sweetheart, Larry King. While still married to him, she entered into a very quiet affair with Marilyn Barnett, who proceeded to out her when she filed a palimony suit in the early 1980s. While the truth forever changed how she was seen, living in her truth meant King could become the LGBTQ activist she is known to be today.

4 /9: She's worked in TV

4/9 :She's worked in TV

King is no slouch when it comes to extracurriculars. She's got a fairly interesting, albeit a little short, IMDb résumé. Aside from appearing as herself on television for interviews and in sports documentaries, King has had guest roles on Arliss, Law & Order and more recently, Fresh Off the Boat

5 /9: She's dear friends with Elton John

5/9 :She's dear friends with Elton John

King and singer Elton John go way back. The pair has been friends since the mid-'70s, when John and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, wrote "Philadelphia Freedom" for King. At the time, King was a part of the tennis group the Philadelphia Freedoms, hence the name and occasion for the theme song to emerge. In a 2015 article detailing their friendship at the time is this interesting nugget: "John told King ahead of time that he was penning a track in tribute to her. The World Team Tennis squad she fronted in Philly was an inspiration, as John followed the team's movements with aplomb, delighted by the sport and by his winsome friend." To this day, King and John remain friends. 

6 /9: She made a stunning admission

6/9 :She made a stunning admission

Rocking her marriage to college sweetheart Larry King to its core, King made the brave and (for the time) shocking announcement that she had had an abortion in the pages of Ms. magazine. At the time still socially and politically controversial, King was among the few famous women openly confirming her abortion while supporting a woman's right to choose to have a safe and legal one. 

7 /9: She's an outspoken feminist

7/9 :She's an outspoken feminist

King has and continues to be the biggest champion of women's rights. From her days bringing visibility to equal pay in the 1970s up through to more recently, when she videoed herself voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Election, you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman more in tune with the needs and rights of women than King. In 1973, she founded the Women's Tennis Association — the first of its kind — in order to support women in the male-dominated sport. In 1974, she helped create the Women's Sports Foundation. Emblematic of the fact that she's a trailblazer for women, in 1990, she was named one of Life magazine's 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century; she was the only female athlete. 

8 /9: Barack Obama recognized her greatness

8/9 :Barack Obama recognized her greatness

While he was president, Barack Obama bestowed some seriously great honors on King. In 2009, he awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activism for women and the LGBTQ community. 

Additionally, Obama made King part of the presidential delegation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She and openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow were part of the delegation, and reportedly, their visible involvement was interpreted as a political commentary on Russia's extreme anti-LGBTQ laws.

9 /9: She lost her endorsements after coming out

9/9 :She lost her endorsements after coming out

While detailing her how she came out and why she came out publicly after being outed, King made it clear that being revealed as a gay woman had a shocking and immediate effect on her life. "This is the biggest struggle I've had in my entire life," she detailed. "I told my PR person and I told my lawyer, 'I want to have a press conference and I'm going to tell the truth.' They said 'You cannot do that. No one's ever done that.' I said, 'I don't care what people have done before me.'"

King went on to describe how immediate that backlash was: "The truth always sets you free, [but] I lost all my money in 24 hours. Every single endorsement I had, I lost it in 24 hours. But it's OK. It's like you just start over."