One of my favorite memories of her was the night before a singles final at Wimbledon.
My late, former husband, Women’s Tennis Assn. Executive Director Jerry Diamond, and her husband, Larry King, were in the midst of one of their interminable chess games. I was stretched out at the foot of her bed. Billie was having trouble breathing. She is highly allergic to grass, on which the All England Championships are played, and had a touch of asthma
“Billie,” I said, “are you going to play tomorrow?”
She looked at me as if I had just arrived from Mars, with my brains leaking out of my ears.
As if anything could have kept her off of Centre Court short of death and that might have had to wait its turn.
Of her 39 Grand Slam victories in singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles, 20 were won at Wimbedon.
Allergies be damned.
Much of the public’s perception of what Billie accomplished on behalf of women is tied to the “Battle of the Sexes,” her match against the aging tennis hustler, Bobby Riggs, in 1973.
It was not a match she sought and for some of her admirers not the apex of her career, let alone her life.
“Some of the players tried to talk me out of it,” Billie said.
The worriers included my husband and hers.
“I wanted to win so badly because Title 9 had been passed in 1972 — the first equal funding for women going to college or universities,” Billie said. “We wanted to tack on sports.
“Today, 57% of the enrollment in colleges and universities are women. I would have been happy with 51%. Now I am worried about the boys.”
The Medal of Freedom news release issued by the White House mentions the Riggs match, her acknowledgment of her lesbian sexual orientation in 1981 and the co-founding of World Team Tennis.