If you know one thing about Billie Jean King, it’s probably that she defeated Bobby Riggs in a heavily hyped 1973 tennis match—the subject of the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes—that captivated the nation’s attention. But as a new Audible Original documentary out today, The Dollar Rebellion: How Billie Jean King and the Original 9 Became the Change They Wanted to See, makes clear, King’s real signature achievement—the one with reverberations still being felt every time a woman athlete gets a paycheck—actually happened three years earlier when she, along with eight other fearless woman players, went out on a limb and formed their own professional tour, which soon became the Women’s Tennis Association.
The audio documentary speaks for itself—literally—as King recounts her sports-mad childhood, her earliest experiences with tennis, the take-no-prisoners decision of her and the rest of what’s now known as the Original 9, and their powerful and important legacy, both on and off the court. That said, we also rang up King for a bit of a sneak preview.
Your match against Bobby Riggs—especially after the recent film centered around it—has long been cemented in our sports culture and our popular culture. But your truly major achievement—starting what’s now known as the WTA—isn’t really widely known. Does that bother you?
I knew it would happen, because 90 million people watched the King/Riggs match. And I knew that if I lost, for the rest of my life when someone saw me or thought of me, I’d be “that girl who lost to that old guy”—and there’s not a day that’s gone by that someone hasn’t asked about it. That’s just what happens when you get that much exposure. But the story of the rest of us—I get too much credit—changing tennis and changing the world is an important one that needs to be told.
Before we get into that, I wanted to ask: You say in The Dollar Rebellion that while your parents encouraged both you and your brother—who played Major League baseball—they never asked if either of you won the games you played?
Absolutely true. They only cared about two things: Health and education. They also wanted to make sure we were centered, we were appreciative, and they wanted us to go for our dreams. My dad believed in me as much as my brother, and that meant a lot. So many women were told—sometimes still are—that we shouldn’t have high expectations, and I think having parents like we did helped me to have high expectations—and to be comfortable with having them. My mother wasn’t into sports—she kept me grounded. I remember washing dishes one night when I was seven and telling her, “Mommy, mommy—I just know I’m going to do something great with my life!” And she looked over at me, laughing, and said “That’s right—now just get back to washing those dishes.” They both were very strict and had very strong boundaries, but they gave us a lot of space to run crazy with our dreams.
But why tennis—why not, I don’t know… play baseball like your brother or something?
Tennis was my last sport—I grew up in team sports. There were very few sports in general available for women, but Susan Williams in fifth grade asked me if I wanted to play tennis. I said, “What’s tennis?” She said, “You get to run, jump, and hit.” And I said, “Oh my God—those are my three favorite things in sports. Yeah, I’ll try it.” And so we went to this country club, and I hit the first one over the fence.
And the rest is history.
Yeah, pretty much! By the time I was 13, I decided I was going to be the number-one tennis player in the world, and I knew I wanted to change tennis. I read all the history, all the biographies—99% of them were about men, but I didn’t think about that yet. I didn’t know the word “platform” yet either, but I knew what it meant. Fast-forward to 1968, and we finally had what so many of us had dreamed about: professional tennis, or “open” tennis—open to everyone if you were good enough [as opposed to amateur tennis, with sketchy prize money and under-the-table “appearance payments,” among a host of other player complaints]. My then-husband told me that if we could get pro tennis to happen that the men would try to get rid of me. And I said, “No—they’re my friends, they’re great.” And he was correct and I was totally wrong.
So the Original 9 founding their own tour was less about an entrepreneurial spirit and more about simple self-preservation?
Let’s put it this way: Rod Laver wins Wimbledon and is paid $2,000 Pounds. I won and was paid $750. I was not happy. And pretty soon, tournaments were dropping women’s events—and if they did have them, the prize money was an 8-to-1 ratio. Things were going south really fast. And Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis magazine, started helping Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey and I and eventually a few more of us. We ended up signing with her for $1 before a tournament at the Houston Racquet Club, which was the formation of the Original Nine [in addition to King, Casals, and Richey: Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, and Valerie Ziegenfuss] and the birth of professional women’s tennis. Our 50th anniversary is this year. Today, nine out of ten of the top earners in women’s sports are tennis players. The reason Serena makes all that money, the reason we have a WTA Tour or a WTA at all—everything goes back to that moment. We were willing to give up our careers—we crossed that line in the sand where we knew that we may never have played again. And we didn’t care—we decided that we were going to go for it. And every time today that a woman gets a check, we feel proud.
Did you have a plan after that one-dollar payday, or were you just winging it?
The three things we wanted were, one: That any girl born anywhere in this world, if she’s good enough, would have a place to play and compete; two, that she be appreciated for her accomplishments; and, third, that she’d be able to make a living at doing what she loved. Men grow up knowing this and have always understood this. Girls have to do the same.
You say something in The Dollar Rebellion that I wanted to ask you about. After noting the obvious influence and example of boundary-breaking athletes that came before you including Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, you say, almost offhandedly, that you think that “everybody is an influencer.” How so?
You get up every day, and hopefully you get a chance to talk to somebody—and every time that two people get engaged in discussion and dialogue, you’re influencers. And of course, you can influence yourself—by thinking about what you want and deciding where to go every day and what to do. But we can all take it many more steps—and we can all also be afraid of going for it sometimes—but look what happens when you do it anyway: We can all influence not just our own lives, but others. I still have women coming up to me talking about the King/Riggs match and telling me how I gave them some kind of self-confidence—that they had always wanted to ask for a raise but now finally had the courage to do it. And I’ve had men come up to me with tears in their eyes who had finally realized that their daughters deserved the same opportunities as their sons. President Obama, when I first met him at the White House, said to me, “You know, I saw that match when I was 12, and it’s amazing now that I have two daughters, how it helped shape my thought about how to raise them.”
I was also amazed to learn that Original 9 are not in tennis’s Hall of Fame?!
Well—not yet, at least. We were finally nominated, and I just voted today—I voted for us. [laughs] So we’ll see what happens. I don’t think a lot of people really understood what we did—which is why I think it’s more important than ever to tell our story, because without this, I don’t know what would have happened. Would women’s tennis have been relegated to a warm-up act? Would it even exist?