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Tennis Legend Billie Jean King on Naomi Osaka, Mental Health and Her Continued Fight for Women’s Rights

It’s been nearly 48 years since Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, and she’s still fighting for equality to this day. The tennis legend, 77, is busy promoting her new memoir, “All In,” where she talks not only about her sport but her history as an activist for women’s rights.

“Why do you think the King v. Riggs match was so important? It was because I was now in a male arena,” she said about the stark difference in representation for male and female athletes. “And 95% of the media is still controlled by men. That was about them, the media guys — because ‘it’s about me as a male.’ If I played another great woman, they wouldn’t have even cared.”

King’s passion for advocacy is part of the reason why women’s sports is where it is today.

It was King who in 1972 stood in front of Congress to testify on behalf of Title IX for girls and women to advance in their sport. When Title IX passed that year, it ended discrimination based on sex and remains one of the few laws that grants women equality in America. Billie Jean King then created the Women’s Sports Foundation, in part to protect the sports side of Title IX in 1974.

Without her, the current generation would not be in a position where they could earn the same amount of money as their male counterparts or receive scholarships to play sports in college — much less speak up on social issues or refuse press and attention, a debate that’s dominated the tennis world this year.

“We wished people would even listen to us then,” King told FN at the launch of Wilson’s New York pop-up. “So it was a different challenge.”

Current No. 2-ranked tennis star Naomi Osaka, a four-time major champion, has lately used her platform for social justice advocacy, but she garnered controversy in May for declaring that she would not be doing press conferences. She later withdrew from the French Open citing her mental health.

For King, to be activist and a leader for change, it all starts with caring for yourself, she said.

“You’re going to have to give more and more energy. You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Am I taking care of myself?'” she said. “Now, my generation wouldn’t have asked that. Because we would have said, ‘How can we get one more person to watch us?'”

King added, “If you don’t take good care of yourself, you can’t take really good care of others. So if you need to not play, do not play. The human element has to come first, and once you get that balance the way you want it, then you can give more to others and give more out on the court and do more for what you care about. For me, I care about equality and inclusion, but we just did it because we had to. So the younger generation needs to take advantage of those choices from the generations before.”

While King admitted that she has not spoken to Osaka about her recent choices, she believes the game needs to be promoted. However, the tennis legend said that female athletes face undue scrutiny. For instance, they often are asked about their sexuality and other topics that the media doesn’t ask men.

King suggested a training or rookie school of sort to understand what it means to be a professional athlete or entertainer. And part of that has to do with the media. She also believes that the younger generation needs to look outside the bubble of their own brand to continue to push the sport forward and find what cause they may be fighting for.

“It’s not just about me or my career, it’s about everyone,” she said. “So how can you find that balance of giving enough back as well as taking care of yourself?”

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