“American Masters” profiles its first sports figure with Billie Jean King documentary

When tennis star Serena Williams won her fifth U.S. Open title on Sunday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, she received $3.6 million — the same amount that Rafael Nadal would receive the next night for winning the men’s singles title of the tournament. It was not always the case that the women’s champion received the same amount of prize money as the men’s champion. There was not even always a separate women’s tennis tour — that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The developments in the tour, the prize money and many other strides for equality on the tennis court and in other areas of society helped come about in large part thanks to the woman whose name graced the stadium in which Williams achieved her most recent success — Billie Jean King.

King’s efforts to make her sport, and her society, more equal are part of the terrific new installment of PBS’ American Masters series. American Masters: Billie Jean King airs Sept. 10 at 9pm ET (check local PBS listings), and is the long-running, critically acclaimed series’ first profile of a sports figure. The program is timed to commemorate three 40th anniversaries: the famed Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” match from Sept. 20, 1973 (the episode does not touch on very recent rumblings that some people think Riggs may have thrown that match); the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) by King on June 20, 1973; and the U.S. Open becoming the first Grand Slam tournament to award equal prize money to men and women.

Billie Jean King herself plays a large part in this documentary, weighing in on her thoughts and feelings at various times in her life, from the first moment she tried tennis (for lack of other sports options available to athletically minded young girls of her era); to her early notice of the inequalities that surrounded her not only on the tennis court, but in the world at large, and her desire to do something about them; to the hurt of her public “outing” by a former lover.

Along with King, the film includes comments from her contemporaries and fellow tennis stars, including Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Ilana Kloss (King’s partner); notable personalities and friends like Elton John, Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem; and current tennis stars, including Serena Williams, now the top prize money earner in women’s tennis. In an interview a few months ago, Williams said, “We owe our complete professional career to Billie Jean King.” This American Masters episode shows just how correct she is.

American Masters: Billie Jean King airs Sept. 10 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).


Billie Jean King in 1977: Credit Kathy Willens