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Celebrating Billie Jean King and 50 Years of Equality in Tennis

Fifty-one years ago, Billie Jean King learned that her $10,000 prize money for winning the U.S. Open was $15,000 less than what Ilie Nastase, the men’s champion was paid. She was so angry that she set out do something about it.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Open became the first sporting event in history to offer the same amount of prize money for men and women competitors, the first victory in a battle for equality in sports and pay that still goes on today.

“[Back then], people probably went, ‘Huh? What? The women are going to make as much as the guys?’ This is a huge event to do that. It starts to change the hearts and minds of people,” King said in an interview on the US Open’s official website. “Sport is a microcosm of society … so we have an amazing opportunity to lead and let people think about things, and maybe they’ll change.”

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First Tennis, Then the World

At this year’s U.S. Open, which starts today, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) is celebrating 50 years of equal pay. There are posters of King, an opening night tribute, and an “equity lounge” on the site of the United States Open in Flushing, which in 2006 was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

It’s not just about the money, it’s about the message.

Of course all this didn’t come easily. King had to threaten to boycott the U.S. Open if prize money wasn’t equal. In a New York Times article, King recalled meeting with the tournament director Bill Talbert and arguing that a fan poll showed massive interest in women’s tennis. Then she revealed her ace: She had secured a sponsor—Bristol Myers’s Ban deodorant—to make up the difference in total prize money.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the message,” said Billie Jean King. “Every generation does have to fight for equality and freedom.”

After making equality a reality in 1973, King achieved another important victory a few weeks later. She defeated Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match at Houston’s iconic Astrodome, a match that helped to propel the women’s movement in both sports and in society, and still remains the most-watched tennis match ever.

“She is working as hard today as she was 50 years ago,” said Stacey Allaster, the United States Tennis Association’s chief executive of professional tennis, and the first female director of the U.S. Open. “And she’s so focused, I would say possessed. She’s continuing to live by what she believes: that sport is for social change, and it’s not what you get, but what you give.”
By NextTribe Editors


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