'American Masters': Billie Jean King let Bobby Riggs hustle off the tennis court so she could hustle on

billie-jean-king-american-masters-325.jpgBillie Jean King answers questions easily, directly and gracefully, pretty much how she ruled the tennis court.

Leaving an interview, the conversation turns to ballet, which King adores. Standing in a hotel lobby, she hooks one leg onto a waist-high banister, assuming a classical ballet stretch. Grinning, she says to Zap2it, "Not bad for an old woman."

Not bad at all, given the eight knee operations since she burst onto the world stage in a victory that never gets old.

King trouncing Bobby Riggs was a glorious turning point in history.

For those born after the 1973 match, PBS' "American Masters" profile of King, airing Tuesday, Sept. 10 (check local listings), is required viewing. It should be for those who lived it anyway.

"You see yourself on that and think, 'Is that really me?' There is such a disconnect," King says.

Besides King's phenomenal stats -- 20 Wimbledon titles, 39 Grand Slam titles -- PBS makes history with this film: the first athlete profiled in the series' 27 years.

It wasn't, though, just King's amazing prowess on the court that propelled her to superstardom. It was her unflappable conviction that female pro athletes should be paid the same as their male counterparts.

As Riggs relentlessly ridiculed women and the country was rent over women's rights, King felt compelled to win "The Battle of the Sexes."

"Let him hustle off the court," she says. "I'll hustle on. I wanted to be serious, and I wanted it to be fun."

Purple glasses and a spiky haircut replace the wire-frame glasses and '70s shag. King has a stunning honesty about her. That's why she went against the advice of her management team and faced banks of cameras when her former assistant, a woman, said they had been lovers.
King was outed.

"I cannot lie like that," she says, recalling the experience. "I could have never lived with myself."

She and Larry King (not the broadcaster) took a while to divorce. King and Ilana Kloss have been together for 34 years. Though they wear wedding bands, and Elton John keeps offering to sing at their wedding, they haven't yet wed.

Equality in marriage is one of many strides she's fought for, but remaining inequalities incense her. She was just watching female news reporters interview the baseball commissioner, and no one asked why women still don't play baseball professionally. To King, the absence of pro women's baseball is unfinished business.

"To finish is always hard," she says. "With women we just don't get it. It would be nice if we had more professional sports for women, and girls could still have the dream."

Her dream started when a friend asked her to play tennis. King didn't know what that was, but her pal said, "You get to run, jump and hit a ball," she says in the film, which were "three of my favorite things."

She needed a racket. Her dad told her to earn the money. King was in fifth grade; she did odd jobs for neighbors and bought a lavender racket for $8.

King comes from an athletic family: Her brother is Randy Moffitt, a retired MLB pitcher; her dad had played basketball with Jackie Robinson, and King was reared to fight prejudice.

Chronicling her life means a modern history lesson on tennis, going back to when women made a fraction of what men did on the court. She and eight other women rebelled against the tennis establishment, leading to the Virginia Slims Tour and the Women's Tennis Association.

Even with all she's achieved, King hints at one last crusade: something to do with leadership, is all she will say.

"That will be my last thing," King says. "I turn 70 this year. Then I am finished. God, I need a break."
Photo/Video credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images