“Champions adjust. Champions are masters at being resilient. To succeed, you have to find a way to reconcile everything – chasing goals, believing you will succeed but absorbing failure, and the loneliness of knowing that no one can help you on the court but you.”
“Two of the unchanging, overarching lessons of my life are that people’s existence is rarely improved by sitting still in the face of injustice, and that the human spirit should never be underestimated. The human spirit can’t be caged.”
As an avid tennis fan and player, I was thrilled when I read that Billie Jean King (BJK) was coming out with an autobiography. While I knew she was a groundbreaking tennis player in her day, especially renowned for her historical “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, I honestly didn’t know much else about her. With that said, let’s delve right into All In: An Autobiography.
Published in August, this memoir gives readers a deep and comprehensive look into BJK’s life story. Born in Long Beach, California, her first encounter with tennis was in the fifth grade when a friend convinced her to attend a lesson with her. After her first few experiences playing, BJK dedicated herself to the sport and quickly set out to win Wimbledon (a Grand Slam tournament played in London) and become the #1-ranked player in the world. After undergoing intense training and an excruciating schedule of play for many years, BJK would come to accomplish much more than that; some of her career highlights include capturing 39 Grand Slam tennis titles and 20 career victories at Wimbledon, as well as winning the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match and holding the world #1 ranking in women’s tennis for six years.
While it was fascinating to read about what it took to become a champion on the court, I was dismayed to learn about all of the barriers she endured on her way to becoming the best in the sport. One incredibly significant barrier was the entrenched sexism present in the sports world at the time, BJK illustrating a vivid picture of just how different it was to be a female athlete in the mid-20th century compared to now. She was first barred from advancing beyond an amateur player (meaning she was not paid for playing) since being a professional athlete was not an acceptable profession for women. After breaking that glass ceiling and turning pro, she found herself in yet another uphill battle in which tournaments refused to pay women the same earnings/winnings as men.
She was also constantly barraged with society’s stereotypical expectations of women, always having to answer to when she would give up her fling with tennis to settle down and start a family, why she thought the world would want to watch female athletes, and how she had the nerve to take away money from the true breadwinners. These expectations didn’t even spare her at the very beginning of her young career; one particularly scarring memory involved being pulled out of a picture at one of the tennis clubs where she practiced because she was wearing shorts instead of a skirt or dress. On top of all of this, BJK also struggled with an eating disorder and her sexuality later on in her professional life, especially having to keep the latter secret in fear of losing everything she had worked so hard to achieve.
Despite all of the aforementioned struggles, BJK not only excelled in tennis, but also used her platform to make huge strides in several social justice issues off the court. She founded several initiatives and organizations to support and advocate for women’s rights, including the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation; established World TeamTennis, a professional tennis league in which men and women compete together on a team; and advocated for the passing of Title IX in 1972. She also set up the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to achieve diverse and equitable leadership in the workforce. She has and continues to engage in every opportunity she can to pave the way for all of the women who have and will continue to come after her; it is no wonder that she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2009.
Overall, this autobiography is one of the most inspiring accounts I have ever read. I led this post with two quotes because expressing just half of BJK’s influence on the world wouldn’t do this book or her legacy justice; she is not only a champion of tennis, but also a champion of social justice and equal rights. She has been a trailblazer for women’s rights, not only throughout the sports world, but also across society and the world at large. She is still fighting for social justice today, especially for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and one of the greatest values she abides by is ensuring that tennis, sports, and the world are inclusive and accessible for everyone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
This book is also available in the following formats:
In addition to this book, I would also check out the 2017 motion picture Battle of the Sexes, featuring Emma Stone as BJK and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs (her opponent). This match was one of the most widely watched sporting events of all time, with an estimated 90 million people having tuned in to watch on primetime television.