By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Billie Jean King bought her first tennis racket at age 11 with money earned from chores.
At 23, she was ranked No. 1 in the world. And by the time she retired at 40, she had won 39 Grand Slam titles.
On Wednesday, King took her place alongside 15 other pioneering women and men in fields ranging from the arts and sciences to clergy and politics to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in ceremonies at the White House.
King, 65, wasn't honored simply because she played her sport better than every other woman -- and, so famously in 1973, better than one particular man, Bobby Riggs, in the "Battle of the Sexes."
She was honored because she looked at her sport and its centuries-old tradition and saw possibilities for elevating others, as well. And she devoted herself to doing just that.
Said President Obama, who presented the medal: "We honor what she calls 'all the off-the-court stuff' -- what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation -- including my two daughters -- a chance to compete both on the court and in life."
After mingling with fellow honorees whose life's work left her humbled, and looking on with inexpressible pride as her 87-year-old mother, who traveled from Arizona for the ceremony, met the president and first lady, King seemed 11 years old again as she spoke about what the honor represented.
Dressed in a navy suit, she fingered the red, white and blue medallion around her neck and wondered out loud if it would be possible to take it apart so she could share a piece with every person who had ever helped her.
Many of her loved ones shared the day with her, including her partner, Ilana Kloss, and Kloss's mother. King said she felt sure that others, including her late father, looked on from heaven.
In acknowledgment of her parents, she asked that the name inscribed on the back of her medallion include theirs, as well, although "Billie Jean Moffitt King" isn't how the public knows her best.
Four decades ago when female tennis players were celebrated for being demure, King advocated for equal prize money. And after the men's professional tour refused to represent women's concerns, King formed a separate pro tour and players' union for women.
But her vision had always been one in which both sexes join forces -- whether on the tennis court or in civic life. And King's creation in 1974 of a professional co-ed league, World Team Tennis, embodied that vision.
"Tennis is a platform," King said. "And I fight for everybody."