Billie Jean King: much more than a tennis star

I left Tuesday’s “Smart Talk: Connected Conversations” at the Aronoff feeling as if I’d just heard some truths from someone special. That someone was Billie Jean King, famous largely for her defeat of Bobby Riggs in a tennis match back in 1973. The match was billed as The Battle of the Sexes. Although not a tennis aficionado, I clearly remember the pride I felt when a woman beat a man at this widely televised game. Much more than a tennis match, it was a symbolic drama in the context of 70’s feminism. I was 23 then and a fierce feminist. So, yes, I knew who Billie Jean King was.

In her talk which she called “Pressure is a Privilege” (also the title of her forthcoming book), Billie Jean King shared with the audience three values she had come to respect:

  • Advocate for yourself and loved ones — She emphasized that relationships are the most important thing in our lives. Billie Jean spoke of the support she had received from her parents and several teachers along the way. She shared how the synchronicity of meeting a certain childhood friend who played tennis was a turning point in her life. A funny story about getting to know Elton John was also shared.
  • Assumptions — Don’t assume. Secrets don’t work! King shared the importance of truth and transparency. Coming out as a lesbian was, perhaps, the hardest thing she’d ever done, she confided to the nearly filled auditorium. Being authentic, although difficult at times, was the only true way to live. King shared how she has struggled with an eating disorder. It was humbling to hear this she-ro [a term she used several times that evening] confide so deeply to the crowd. You could sense how approachable and personable Billie Jean King was, that she practiced what she preached.
  • Make a difference — The pressure of the sports arena is but a microcosm of society. Title IX, which put girls’ sports on an equal billing with that of boys in school, was much more important, she insisted, than her tennis match with Bobby Riggs. She challenged us to make a difference in our own lives, doing what we believe is important. You could tell she’d be a great coach by the conversational pep talk she gave.

Named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” [LIFE Magazine, 1990], King hasn’t stop to bask in her many tennis awards: 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles, and mixed doubles tennis titles, including a record 20 Wimbledon titles, winning the US Open 4 times, and more. Off the tennis court, King serves as director of several boards including the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Women’s Sports Foundation.

The next speakers in the series are Victoria Rowell April 14 and Diane Keaton May 19. Besides Cincinnati, SMART TALK brings accomplished women to speak in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and several other cities. For tickets and more information, go to

One response to “Billie Jean King: much more than a tennis star

  1. Phebe – Great work on this. Subtle, not gushing. To the point and to BJK’s point too. Thank you for sharing. Annette

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