In All In, Tennis Icon Billie Jean King Grapples With Pressure, Privilege, and Power

In her new memoir, the tennis star writes candidly about abortion, feminism, and equal pay

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In All In, Tennis Icon Billie Jean King Grapples With Pressure, Privilege, and Power

Billie Jean King is one of the greats. She isn’t the most decorated woman to ever play tennis, but she has left an indelible mark on the sport—so much so that there is a plaque in the most coveted tennis court in New York, Arthur Ashe Stadium, with a quote attributed to King: “Pressure is a privilege.” That quote was at the forefront of my mind while reading King’s memoir All In, which coincided with Naomi Osaka’s decision to opt out of three major tennis tournaments. When I began reading All In, I partially expected a book mythologizing the toughness of King and her contemporaries, one that might cast a shadow on modern tennis players who perhaps didn’t have to endure the same burdens as women trying to play tennis in the infancy of mainstream American feminism. Instead, I found a tender and intimate portrait of the women’s movement through the lens of tennis. King frames herself not as a hero—which she arguably is—but as merely a woman who wanted to be the best and accidentally ended up being an enormous catalyst for change.

Billie Jean Moffitt was born in 1943 in Long Beach, California, but she came alive in September of 1954, when she attended her first group tennis lesson, at the invite of her friend Susan. “Tennis fascinated me from that first day I played with Susan using a borrowed racket,” King writes. She told her mother, “I found out what I’m going to do with my life! I want to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world!”

King weaves the story of her adolescence and advancement through tennis together with detailed portraits of her contemporaries and a historical overview of the state of tennis at the time. The pictures she paints of some key moments in her youth—seeing Althea Gibson play for the first time, realizing the racial and gender discrimination present in tennis, meeting the book’s indisputable villain Perry T. Jones—vividly transport the reader to the late ’60s and early ’70s.

More than that, King’s memoir is a picture of the upheavals for women in the era, firsthand from a woman who helped shape that history. King’s development as a feminist and initial reluctance to use the word is one of the central themes of a book that has unquestionable feminist undertones. They are best summed up in King’s reflection on a conversation she had with Gloria Steinem where she questioned why Steinem wasn’t utilizing more women athletes to push the feminist agenda. “Some feminists thought sports overly reflected the dog-eat-dog ethos of the patriarchy. I thought some feminists sometimes intellectualized things too much,” King writes. But King also admits that her fear of alienating reporters by associating with the more radical side of the feminist movement held her back from fully campaigning for things like the Equal Rights Amendment.

“I should’ve lobbied harder for the ERA at the outset,” King writes. “Early on, I felt I didn’t have enough information and I wish I had asked help or that the feminist leaders had pulled me aside and explained why I should fight harder for the amendment.”

King was an early champion for equal pay in tennis, taking on the male-dominated governing bodies of the sport long before she ever stepped on the court for her historic “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, whom she mentions throughout the book. In 1973, the U.S Open became the first major tennis tournament to payout equal prize money to men and women. But this was largely made possible because of a conversation King had with the tournament’s director, Billy Talbert, in 1972. King met with Talbert privately and said she and the top women in her sport would compete in the Open that year despite the alarming pay gap between men and women. If, however, the gap was not addressed for the following year she would boycott the tournament “and most of the top women would walk out with me.” King asked Talbert if “tournament organizers really thought that the men were bigger draws or more entertaining than Chrissie [Evert], Rosie [Casals], Evonne [Cawley], Margaret [Court], and the other great women we had.”

King took her negotiations a step further and had already lined up a sponsor to kick in the missing $55,000 it would take to achieve equal prize money. “He made the deal,” King writes. “Billy couldn’t believe that I’d brought money to the table, not just rhetoric.”

King describes standing in front of a board of 15 people pleading her case for an abortion as the “most degrading thing I’ve ever experienced”

But it wasn’t all tennis tournaments and successful business deals. King also shares her experience having an abortion two years before Roe v. Wade. Therapeutic abortions were legal in her home state of California in 1971, but “any woman wanting an abortion had to go before a medical committee first and explain why she believed that her pregnancy would ‘gravely impair’ her ‘physical or mental health.’ So that’s what I had to do,” she writes. King describes standing in front of a board of 15 people pleading her case for an abortion as the “most degrading thing I’ve ever experienced.”

The way in which King weaves her abortion into subsequent pages is more than a personal retrospection—it’s an indictment of the times and a challenge to the current state of reproductive rights in the United States. After King had her abortion—which cost $580 and had to be signed off on by her husband Larry— she kept it a secret from the rest of her family and many of her colleagues. That is until a year later when Steinem’s Ms. magazine published its infamous “We Have Had Abortions” list. Unbeknownst to her, King’s name was there as well. “I was blindsided when the list was printed.”

King makes note of the ongoing inequities in the movement for full reproductive rights, focusing on access and affordability. “When I see hard-won reproductive rights being rearguard and rolled back today… it makes me wonder if people remember how difficult things were before, even when a woman’s pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. How short our memories are.” King also talks about a teenager she met in the waiting room before getting her procedure done. King remembers talking to the girl and listening to the “nightmare” that it was for her to get to California from her home state and having to get a family member to arrange the procedure.

King explains that her appearance on that list was a miscommunication between her and Larry. The couple had received a letter from Ms. which “was in a stack of mail” Larry had gathered. Inside was a petition in support of legalizing abortion which Larry said King should sign because it could help push the movement forward. “I said okay, that I would take a look. But it was Larry who actually signed my name on the petition and sent it back without telling me he had done so—or me knowing that the petition allowed Ms. to publish my name,” King recalls.

From there the narrative made its way onto 60 Minutes, where King had to justify her choice to get an abortion on national television and to her mother with whom she was watching when the episode finally aired. After everything she’d done creating a women’s tennis tour, battling for equal pay, and mentoring young tennis players, that one moment cemented King in the public as “one of those angry feminists” who had chosen to put her career first.

A year after the list was published King found herself across the court from Bobby Riggs competing in Battle of the Sexes II. She was 29 years old and had been competing on unstable knees since she was a teenager. For most casual tennis fans, this is what she is remembered for—the pageantry, the smack-talking, the eventual win. But to boil down King’s legacy to a single match is to ignore the decades of silent work she had done to make that match the must-see event of the year.

For all the work King, her contemporaries, and her successors did there are still battles to be won, and most of those fall at the feet of young tennis stars like Naomi Osaka who has become the face of the sport. Years ago, King was the highest-paid woman athlete after making $100,000 in a single year, a record that Osaka surpassed in 2020 after making $37 million, a number the women of King’s era couldn’t fathom.

All In is everything the title promises: An all-encompassing look at what it took for women to progress, not just in tennis, but in America and how women of color were constantly left behind, a fight King struggled with after idolizing Althea Gibson. At its center, it’s a story about pressure—to be the best, to win equal pay, to be a representative for queer athletes. But King understands that ultimately that pressure was a result of privilege and with All In, she’s produced a book that grapples with both.

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