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Billie Jean King's Enduring Impact on Tennis and Pay Equality

Following the 2023 US Open, we remember Billie Jean King’s fight for equal pay and equal opportunity for women in sports.

Photo via U.S. Open

Each year, the world comes together in Flushing Meadow, Queens, to watch the top tennis talent fight to take home the prize of winning the U.S. Open. This year we witnessed 19-year-old Coco Gauff take home her first Grand Slam, and Novak Djokovic walk away with his 24th.

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As Gauff took the stage to accept her trophy and winnings, she took the time to thank Billie Jean King. For those of you who aren’t aware, King is the reason pay equality exists within the sport of tennis, and the fight to achieve such a feat was hard won. 

Early in King’s career, women tennis players earned a fraction of what men earned—if they were paid at all. For example, in 1972, U.S. Open men’s champion Ilie Năstase pocketed $25,000, while King took home just $10,000. At Wimbledon, the same trend followed with the added insult of requiring married female athletes to be listed under their husband’s name.

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For the decade before King’s climactic match now known as the “Battle of the Sexes,” she had been fighting for pay equality to no avail. But in 1973, when Bobby Riggs, a 54-year-old former tennis champion, called King with a challenge to prove once and for all that no woman could keep up with a man on a tennis court, the tables turned. 

Many of King’s friends told her to ignore the challenge as Riggs was a shameless self-promoter and his unseemly challenge could only have a negative impact on women’s tennis.

But King felt otherwise and she accepted the challenge. There in the Astrodome in front of 30,000 fans and 90 million more people glued to their TVs, King prevailed in straight sets. 

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Now, 50 years later, 79-year-old Billie Jean King’s fight for pay equality still rings throughout the sporting and business worlds. We saw the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team file a pay dispute just in 2022. The 4 time World Cup champions and overall most successful women’s soccer team in world history fought to be paid the same as their colleagues on the U.S. Men’s National Team. Mind you, the men have not reached the semi-finals since 1930, or the quarter-finals since 2002. 

Women are still fighting for equal pay as they continue to earn an estimated 82 cents to every dollar a man earns, the Pew Research Center estimates. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement in the right direction. 

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Only in 2023 have more than 10% of Fortune 500 have women CEOs—the first time in history women have ever crossed the 10% threshold. Since 2016, women have represented the majority of law students. And this year women are the majority demographic applying to medical school.

So this U.S. Open we celebrate Billie Jean King’s historic win and all that it still represents in the steps towards pay equity.

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