She was given the red-carpet treatment at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which almost makes up for never having flashed a gut-stringed wooden racquet on our courts.
“This’ll be my 53rd consecutive summer at Wimbledon,” King tells me. “I was 17 when I won the women’s doubles with Karen Susman and do you know we’re still the youngest to do that? In all this time I never got to Scotland and I’m real sorry about that but I wasn’t invited. Still, I met Annie Lennox at Williams College in Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago when we both got honorary doctorates and I was real glad to be able to tell her I was coming at last.”
When we consider the purpose of King’s visit – the world premiere of The Battle of the Sexes, a documentary about her struggle to secure equality for the women’s game which became a landmark triumph for Women’s Lib – it’s maybe surprising that the invite never arrived from the hick home of Scottish tennis at the capital’s Craiglockhart. After all, when she was ostracised by America’s tennis establishment, games in backwaters were just about all she could get.
It’s 1970 and King and some tennis sisters, fed up at not being allowed their own tour, organise one themselves. The Original 9, as they were called, included Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey and Peaches Bartkowicz. “We played in towns where they didn’t have enough tennis balls and we’d have to go out and buy them,” King recalls. “Sometimes we’d have to help lay the courts. And these towns would send their society reporters down to meet us, or the fashion gals. We’d have to tell them how scoring worked, what a backhand was.” The documentary digs up even more astonishing enquiries from sceptical TV men: “What’s it like being a tennis widow?” and –to King, the 9’s leader – “Just how much longer are you going to keep this up?” She laughs at the memory. “Do you know, a woman couldn’t even get a credit card back then and school quotas meant that only five per cent of classes at Harvard studying medicine could be female. Incredible times.”
We’re talking in London where King will return after Edinburgh for the start of Wimbledon. She’ll be 70 in November and apologises for her jet-lag following the journey from her home in New York. But she’s already managed to fit in a session in the hotel gym and her answers are as incisive as her forehands used to be, back in that 39 Grand Slam title-winning pomp.
“Do you know, people in New York City live two-and-a-half years longer than the rest of the US because we all do so much walking. I had new knees fitted three years ago and I feel like a new person.” She talks quickly, and about anything you want. How she spends a week every month with her 91-year-old mother Betty who’s just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. How she wishes America was a fitter, healthier nation. How gay rights are the civil rights of the 21st century. How she wishes she’d kept the letters from sponsors cancelling her endorsements after she was outed, telling her to “go to hell”. How she spent 13 years in therapy. How she wishes she still had those amazing curlicue-framed specs. “I’ve worn glasses since I was 12. It was my science teacher who noticed I was having trouble with my eyesight. Suddenly I could see the leaves on the trees. And that pair were my ‘Little Miss Moffitt’ ones – weren’t they somethin’?”
Could she oblige by talking about Andy Murray and his chances this Wimbledon? “Sure. I put it on the line about Andy seven years ago, saying he had to have the want to do it. Slowly but surely he’s getting there and right now he looks real sharp. The Olympics was the big turning-point. He obviously has a kinship with [coach Ivan] Lendl who was a runner-up many times before he won. His mother did a great job with him, teaching him how to play. Do I think he can win? He’s got all the goods. He’s a great player, are you kidding? It’s got to be this year or sometime in the next two and he knows that. He’s got to not be passive on the critical points as he’s sometimes been and he knows that too. Put the pedal to the metal, Andy, and stay appropriately aggressive when it comes to the moment of truth.”
It’s tough for a British man to win Wimbledon, she admits, but no tougher than being a woman as the 1960s turned into the 70s. King is living history about a truly explosive era in sexual politics. “Vietnam was just cooling down, Watergate was heating up. And for men and woman there was just this tumult.” This was a time of bra-burning protests over abortion, beauty contests and just the lack of a level playing field for the sexes. Yet there was self-styled male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, former world No 1 and a Wimbledon winner in 1939, who reckoned the fairer sex had made quite enough advances already. Any more, he said, and a fella’s once-a-week poker game would be under threat, his duck-hunting expeditions, too. He’d end up having to do things with his wife, becoming “enslaved” in interminable bridge evenings. Riggs declared: “No 1, women should be in the bedroom. No 2, get to the kitchen. No 3, support the man, support the king.”
King – who would beat Riggs in the famous match which gives the film its title – reckons she knew she wanted to make a difference at almost the same time as deciding she wanted to be a great tennis player. Presumably such fantastical notions for a ten-year-old didn’t come from her careers officer. “You’re right, and I have to credit my parents, who were great to me and my brother [Randy Moffitt, ex-major league baseball pitcher]. I don’t think fathers completely understand how important they are to their daughters. Your dad is your first hero and you see how he behaves with your mom and you’re influenced by that. My dad Bill – he gave me my name having been christened Willis, which he hated – was my mentor and role model. As a young player I wasn’t put down but I was definitely ignored. Dad told me to dream my dream, to go for it. A man saying that – in what was definitely a man’s world back then – was amazing.”
In the documentary we hear male criticism of King’s playing style: “charging around the court like a man.” But neither she nor any of the women got paid like men. For instance, one of her US Opens earned her $15,000 less than the men’s champ, Ille Nastase. In 1970 the Original 9 made their stand. There were dark threats from the United States Lawn Tennis Association that they’d be banned from playing America’s premier tournament. “It was a dark and scary time for us,” says King. But at least they had commercial backing from Virginia Slims.
The rebel nine were disappointed the likes of Margaret Court, Virginia Wade and the emerging Chris Evert hadn’t come with them, more so when they got given their own tour. And there was more dismay in 1973 when the Originals stopped in Hawaii following exhibition matches in Japan and saw Court lose meekly to Riggs after King had initially declined his challenge. The girls were furiously pumping quarters into a pay-per-view TV but, according to King, could have stopped watching right after the preliminaries. “That was when Bobby presented Margaret with a bouquet and she curtseyed. I knew then she was going to lose. And I also knew, with us still not having the Women’s Tennis Association, that I’d have to play him next.” She was right. “I want the Women’s Lib leader,” said Riggs.
Riggs was 55, the same age as King’s father, while she was 29. If she talks fast, he was even quicker, wisecracking like Groucho with King as his Margaret Dumont, the butt of his gags. The film shows him at his swimming pool surrounded by Hollywood starlets including future Dallas pin-up Victoria Principal who reckoned his outrageous views were harmless, and it’s true he viewed chauvinism as a way of making money. “I knew what Bobby was about,” says King, “and the reason I won was I respected him. I don’t know if Margaret did; maybe I’ll ask her when I see her at Wimbledon. He was a terrible gambler; that’s why his marriages broke up. There’s a story about how he went to see a shrink for his problem and by the second session had the man playing gin rummy with him. That lasted a whole year. But I did like him. I phoned him just before he died and asked if I could visit but he wouldn’t let me. He was still joking away, demanding a re-match.”
King always thought she’d win mainly because she couldn’t afford to lose. “Our campaign for equality would have suffered; the media would have really gone for us. But at that time I had at lot on my mind. I wasn’t sure who I was. I thought I was probably gay and had asked my husband Larry for a divorce but he’d refused. My parents, despite being great people, were homophobic and I felt shame. It was a very confusing time for me. I’d been totally in love with Larry in every way and still thought: if I was 21 again I’d marry him in a heartbeat. All of that meant there was a lot of pressure on me.”
The match was at the Houston Astrodome where George Foreman and Andy Williams were among the biggest crowd in tennis history – 30,472 – while a record 100 million watched on TV. King and Riggs each received $100,000, plus another $50,000 in endorsements like the one for the Mist-Stick Styler (King, pointing at Riggs: “Though this is enough to curl anyone’s hair!”). King arrived on court aboard a throne fit for Cleopatra carried by four college boys dressed as slaves. Broadcaster Howard Cosell, who cheerfully admitted to being “arrogant, obnoxious and cruel”, remarked that if she were to remove her specs and let her hair grow she could get herself a Hollywood screen test. “Wasn’t that ridiculous?” she says. “With a guy he’d have been talking about accomplishments.”
Riggs was soon sweating buckets but was reluctant to remove his bright yellow bomber-jacket emblazoned “Sugardaddy” because it was earning him money. Unperturbed by losing the first set, he tried to increase the bets on him winning. “It was a terrible game; the court was dead,” says King who triumphed 6-4. 6-3, 6-3. “But that wasn’t important. The match had been great for the sport; afterwards there was a real tennis craze. That year the US Open offered women equal money. And in terms of social change, the silly circus had been everything. ‘This is history, Bobby,’ I remember telling him. He said: ‘Who cares? It’s money, honey.’ But I think he understood. In our last conversation he was like: ‘Hey Billie, I guess we did change things, huh?’”
The already epic ’73 would contain one more victory for King and her women. Stars of the rival tours met in secret in a suite of London’s Dorchester Hotel with the aim of uniting to make an even stronger case for parity and respect – although this outcome was by no means a given.
It was the middle of Wimbedon and Ginny Wade for one didn’t want to be there. “I told Betty Stove to stand by the door to stop people leaving,” remembers King. ‘I said: ‘Use your big shoulders although try not to hit anybody.’
“We had to come together. If we hadn’t done I was outta there, finished.”
They did and the WTA was duly founded, but it’s hard to believe that Billie Jean King would ever have given up the struggle.
• ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ gets another Film Festival screening at Edinburgh’s Cineworld tomorrow at 4pm and goes on selected general release on 26 June.