Billie Jean King: Be ahead of your time thats what you have to do

The tennis champs lifelong fight for equality and freedom is celebrated in a new cinema about the Battle of the Sexes. She talks about not being comfy in her own scalp until she was 51, and why millennials give her hope

In 1955, when she was 12 years old, Billie Jean King says she had an epiphany.” I was daydreaming about my little tiny universe of tennis, and I thought to myself:’ Everybody’s wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes, playing with white balls, everybody who plays is white. Where is everybody else ?'” she recollects.” That was the moment I decided to fight for equality and freedom and equal rights and opportunities for everyone. Everyone. Not merely daughters. Everyone .”

Now, 62 years later, the most sensational moment of her long, boundary-smashing tennis career has been turned into a cinema. Directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes tells of the run-up to that infamous high-stakes 1973 match between King( Emma Stone) and the showboating, self-confessed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs( Steve Carell ), in front of 30, 000 live spectators and a colossal Superbowl-sized TV audience. But those expecting a straightforward sports movie may be surprised by its intimacy, as it draws a parallel between the weight of having to prove the worth of all female athletes in that one match, and the distress of hiding a secret affair with her female hairdresser from both her husband Larry and the world.

When meeting King, it is obvious why she has been at the vanguard of so much change, having dedicated much of her life to the fight for equality. When the men’s tour refused to address women’s concerns over pay inequality, King violated away to be established a women’s tour, with each of the” Original Nine” players signing a symbolic$ 1 contract( it is a barnstorming moment in the film, although the timeline has been loosened somewhat to fit dramatic demands ). Shortly afterwards, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association. But when President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2009, he praised” all the off-the-court stuff- what she did to broaden the reach of video games, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone, regardless of gender or sex orientation- including my two daughters- a chance to compete both on the court and in life .”

King
King with 55 -year-old Bobby Riggs ahead of the match. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

In person, she is a brilliant and invigorating livewire, hands knitted together, leaning in to answer questions long before they are finished. She practically triggers with exuberance. She has a boundless curiousity about what other people believe, and before the hour is up she has discovered how old I am, where I grew up and what it was like. She is adopting the word ” fag ” because young people tell her they opt it to “gay” (” although I still feel gay. You know why I like it? Because it’s happy, happy, happy “). She genuinely wants to know why: why did millennials not trust Hillary Clinton? Why did women, any women, vote for Donald Trump? She slaps her hands together joyfully when she hits on a phase she wants to emphasise, which is usually a life lesson about how people can be more kind to one another. At periods, chatting to her is like is available on a one-on-one TED Talk. Her positivity is utterly contagious.

The story of the Battle of the Sexes match is familiar, thanks to its place in the history of athletic and the many documentaries that have been made about it, but some of its more gruesomely misogynistic details are shocking for a modern audience , not least the complete refusal of the tennis establishment to take the idea of a professional women’s game severely. King is pleased that parts of the film will alarm a younger generation, for whom she has a great deal of respect.” I’m truly optimistic about millennials ,” she beams.” And the Gen Z, I don’t know what you call them here- the ones that are 18, 19 now .”

In 2014, King founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting equality in the workplace. She says that, based on research it has carried out,” this is the greatest generation on inclusion ever. And that gives me hope. We’ve done all kinds of studies and it holds true that young people don’t want to be in a workplace that doesn’t have inclusion. They’ll leave work and go to another company if it has better inclusion .” She starts to rap on the table, delivering a speech. Diversity is absolutely vital to her worldview.” I suppose the children that are younger are going to learn from millennials, and pick up on that, too, and I think this could probably save the world .”

She says this with such certainty that it feels mean-spirited to cast doubt on it, but I wonder if she still feels optimistic when the political establishment in the US and the UK feel so far away from that ethos.” But some of the person or persons in the establishment believes in inclusion, so you have to look at each person .” King is big on trying to see the best in everyone, although she admits that, in one respect, during the 2016 general elections, young people frustrated her- she feels they didn’t use the internet as a research tool.” These kids didn’t know one thing about Hillary. Not one thing. They only knew that Bernie was hollering’ revolution !’ and’ free education !’. I’m like: Truly? What’s his policy to pay for the free education?’ I don’t know.’ Well, you guys, it takes fund. All these things that you want, they take fund. You’ve got to be a little deeper in the weeds on this. Oh, my God ,” she says, exasperated.” I would have given anything to have this technology at my fingertips. I would have loved it as a young person. But, use it! They didn’t use it for the elections , not at all .”