The USTA National Tennis Center—the world’s largest public tennis facility and home of the U.S. Open—was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center August 28 in a special tribute and ceremony during Opening Night festivities of the 2006 U.S. Open, in Flushing, Queens. The dedication honors the tennis legend and trailblazer whose pioneering efforts helped change the sport of tennis and launch the drive for gender equality in sports and in society.
“Being a woman, I’m very proud,” said King of the naming. “I want it to send a message and have an echoing effect for other people, but particularly for girls or women, that they need to dream big and go for it …and that anything is possible. Because I would never, in a trillion years, think that this would have happened to a woman—only to a man. Personally, I’m off balance. To be honest, I haven’t come to terms with it.”
King, one of the most illustrious and celebrated athletes in history, and an out lesbian, is recognized for spearheading the women’s movement in tennis by fighting for equal rights in the sport. Among the most decorated champions in tennis history—with 39 Grand Slam titles, including 13 U.S. Open titles—King’s historic defeat of Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” is the most-watched tennis match in history. Her victory reverberated through both tennis and society, and proved a watershed moment for women and a galvanizing milestone of the 20th Century.
King, who began playing tennis in the public parks of in Long Beach, CA, has been a pioneer on and off the court. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. Her dedication to advancing women’s opportunities in sports helped lead to the passage of Title IX legislation. For her many achievements, King was named by Life magazine as one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century,” and placed No. 5 on Sports Illustrated’s “Top 40 Athletes.”
King’s accomplishments, however, have not been without her share of struggles. In 1971, the then married King began a lesbian relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. When the relationship became public 10 years later—in the form of a sexual harassment lawsuit—rather than shrug it off, or deny it (as had many before her), King openly and publicly acknowledged it, becoming one of the first prominent American athletes to openly admit to having a gay relationship, and paving the way for other gay and lesbian athletes to feel comfortable expressing their sexuality.
“Billie Jean King is a legend among legends and we honor her groundbreaking achievements by renaming the USTA National Tennis Center in her honor,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was in attendance at the dedication. “She set an exceptionally high standard not only for athletic achievement, but for dignity and perseverance in the pursuit of justice. Billie Jean King is an inspiration to all budding tennis players and all Americans. And as a New Yorker of 30 years, she is the perfect person to receive this well-deserved honor.”
Thank you, Billie Jean.