In 1973, when Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, I was an overexcited nine year old, more thrilled by the phrases “male chauvinist pig” and “battle of the sexes” than by the symbolism of the match. Nevertheless, the match imprinted on my brain as part of the general consciousness-raising that was going on in 1970s U.S. culture. Billy Jean King and Free To Be You and Me represented Women’s Lib to me. Forty years later, it turns out Billy Jean King (BJK) is an excellent example for me – for us – once again, this time of success redefined as extending beyond money and power.
She’s been in the news again lately, because it’s the fortieth anniversary of that famous tennis match, as well as of the founding of what became the Women’s Tennis Association, and of equal prize money awards for men and women at the U.S. Open, all things in which BJK was instrumental. She’s been interviewed in print, on radio, and on film, and her life story reads like a primer on success. So let’s look at what she can teach us.
First, there’s BJK the player of tennis. For starters, she won twenty Wimbledon trophies in singles and doubles, so that’s pretty great. In talking about how she prepared for a match, she said she used a lot of visualization. She would visualize all the things that could go wrong, and then she would visualize how she would handle them. She would think about all the elements that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle those.
During play, she would set practical, specific goals like returning a serve into a specific part of the court. She would picture where she wanted the ball to go as she hit it. Aside from her visualization, she focused on her side of the net, not on her opponent, on standing up tall, and on letting go of mistakes. She focused on the present. Key, she said, was to forget about the past and the future, and to focus only on what was happening in that moment. Voilá, much money and power eventually arrived.
Then there’s BJK off the court. This is where the story gets interesting. While she loved the game, and was a fierce competitor, she saw tennis as a platform. It was not the only thing that mattered to her. In fact, part of why tennis success mattered to her was that it provided her a way to promote the cause she most believed in: equality. She said, “I knew as a youngster I wanted to be No. 1 in tennis. I knew by 12 my platform would be tennis, but my real life was going to be wrapped around equality and social justice. I felt like I had a tremendous sense of destiny.” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/tennis/2013/09/10/billie-jean-king-40th-anniversary-battle-of-the-sexes-bobby-riggs/2792861/)
Towards those ideals, BJK organized the first women’s tennis league, lobbied for sponsors, and worked hard to establish equal prize money for men and women and equal treatment on tennis tours.
Regarding that infamous match with Bobby Riggs, BJK says she never intended to play him, but then he played another top female player, Margaret Cort, and beat her. After that, BJK felt that she had to play him and she had to win. Why? Because she was working so hard to bring respect to the Women’s Tennis Association, which she helped found, and because Title IX had just passed, and she thought the cause of women’s lib and equality would be hurt if she didn’t. So this is significant because it shows her life’s work was in alignment with deep personal values linked to improving the world.
How did she accomplish so much? Did she arrive fully formed on a clam shell? Was she just a fluke, a tennis genius, a born leader? Certainly genetics came into play. But also, she had help. First, from parents who encouraged her athleticism. Later, when she became a leader among tennis players, her husband encouraged her to set up the women’s league. The common trope of success is “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but this trope is a myth. Look behind – or beside – anyone with sustained, meaningful success and you will find that champions have champions urging them on.
Billy Jean King is a great role model for a sustainable, holistic definition of success that includes more than money and power. She pursued greatness on the court in service of her ideals, not just to win. Once she retired from professional play, she channeled her passion into a new, but related path, behind the scenes. She started co-ed World Team Tennis “the day she retired.” Professional team members include Venus Williams and Andy Roddick. It’s a place for amateurs and professionals to train, and BJK believes that having participants and spectators – families – children – experience men and women playing together teaches a broader lesson about equality.
Does she have power and money? Yes, you bet. But if power and money were the only important metrics to her, she could have quit long ago. Instead, she risked it all when she was outed as a lesbian in the early 1980s, and decided to open up about it. The result was that she lost all of her sponsorships. However, she continued to work towards her goals, recouped her money, and created a legacy as a fighter for social justice.