Billie Jean King, subject of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ biopic, continues battle for equality

Tennis champion Billie Jean King talks about battling for equal pay and equal rights, and about “Battle of the Sexes,” the biopic starring Emma Stone as King.

Forty-four years ago, a 29-year-old female tennis champion played a tennis match, on national television, against a 55-year-old male former tennis champion. And the country, more or less, went insane.

“Battle of the Sexes,” a new movie depicting that match and its times, comes to Seattle theaters Sept. 29, and the real-life woman at the center of the story was on the phone with me for a few minutes last week, fast-talking and bubbly.

“For me it’s about, can we get a younger generation to fight the fight?” said Billie Jean King.

Movie interview

‘Battle of the Sexes’

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity. Opening Friday, Sept. 29, at several theaters.

She’s speaking of the battle for equal pay and equal rights — one she’s fought for much of her life. Now 73, King’s career has encompassed both world-class tennis (she won 39 Grand Slam titles during her playing career, between 1966 and 1980) and social activism.

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While many will remember her much-ballyhooed match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, the movie reminds us of a more significant accomplishment for King that year: Outraged about the vast pay gap that then existed between men and women tennis pros, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), still the core of women’s professional tennis today.

“The one thing I really wanted [in the movie] was to have the original nine have a real presence,” said King, referring to the nine female players, including herself, who formed the Virginia Slims tour in the early 1970s, in open defiance of the United States Tennis Association (which threatened to bar them from Grand Slam events). “We took the chance, and got in a lot of trouble,” said King, but from that tour grew the WTA. Each of the nine women signed a contract for one dollar, posing for a photo with a dollar bill — a scene re-enacted in the movie.

The “Battle of the Sexes” match grew from those tensions; Riggs, a tireless self-promoter and consummate performer, had spoken loudly about how women pros didn’t deserve the same pay as men because they didn’t play as well. King initially declined his invitation to a match, but decided to play him after he easily defeated star player…

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