NEW YORK (AP) — When Billie Jean King won the U.S. Open in 1972, she didn’t make the usual remarks about hoping to win again. Instead, she threatened to not play at all the next year — and added that no other women would, either.
That’s because she earned $10,000 for her championship, $15,000 less than what Ilie Năstase won for his.
“I said: ‘This really stinks,’” King recalled Thursday. “And, of course, deep down in my heart of hearts, in my brain, I’m going, ‘I haven’t talked to them yet. You sure you’re doing the right thing here?’ This is the other voice in my head: ‘What if they don’t agree with you on this? I think they do, because we talk about it all the time, but we didn’t talk about this move.’ And so I said, ‘The heck with it. I don’t think we’ll be back.’”
That led the U.S. Tennis Association to make the 1973 U.S. Open the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to female and male competitors. The 50th anniversary of that achievement will be celebrated this year during the Grand Slam tournament staged at the facility that now bears King’s name.
“We might take that for granted now, but the USTA was so far ahead of the rest of the sports world and society in 1973,” said Stacey Allaster, who in 2020 became the first female U.S. Open tournament director. “Simply no question that Billie’s courage and her leadership … opened the door for me.”
King was aware of a survey that had been conducted at the U.S. Open around that time showing that female players enjoyed more popularity than even they suspected. However, she believed that didn’t matter unless they were given the same paychecks, so she took it upon herself to seek out sponsors she hoped would make up the $15,000 difference.
“If I can bring in the money, then how are they going to say no?” King thought.
Bristol Myers Squibb told her it wanted to pay the entire sum, and it was announced that summer that both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open champions would receive $25,000.
“I think the presentation of the sport and equal prize money being secured 50 years ago has come a long way as to why women in tennis have achieved what they’ve achieved,” said Lew Sherr, the executive director of the USTA.
The WTA Tour was also formed in 1973, the same year King went on to beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” which remains the most-watched tennis match in history.
Equal pay came much later in the other Grand Slam tournaments, but King sees things speeding up now in women’s sports. She just returned from the Women’s World Cup in Australia, played to large crowds and huge local TV ratings, and is an investor in multiple professional women’s and men’s teams and events.
Earlier this year, the WTA announced plans to soon increase the pay at some high-profile tournaments to the same as the men.
“Women are just starting to get the investment,” she said. “I think we’re at the tipping point where people think there’s money in women now.”
The U.S. Open believes so, scheduling its matches on marquee courts and television windows equally to showcase both genders. The Australian Open didn’t permanently start equal pay until 2001, five years before the French Open winners were paid equally. Wimbledon was the last in 2007, with Venus Williams helping lead the push that convinced the All England Club.
“I don’t think any woman should have to worry about if they’re getting paid equal,” Williams said last month. “I’m very happy that no woman again at a Grand Slam has to even concern herself with that. She can just play tennis.”
King is on the court again, having resumed playing during the COVID-19 pandemic after breaks from the sport. She’ll take part in a ceremony Monday night for the 50th anniversary of the gains that came from her threat.
“So taking the chance,” she said, “I’m glad I did.”