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"We've been taught to be happy with the crumbs": Billie Jean King's lifelong play for equality.

When Billie Jean King was 13 years old, she already knew she wanted to be the world’s best tennis player. She’d been playing for just a year, clutching a racquet she’d bought for $8 — money her father had made her work for. The Californian was clearly gifted even then, and ambitious. But one afternoon, gazing around the Los Angeles Tennis Club, she realised something about her beloved sport.

“Everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls, and everybody playing was white,” the 76-year-old told Mamamia. “And I asked myself: Where is everyone else?”

It was in that moment that Billie Jean decided that she would use any future success to make that picture more diverse, more equal, more reflective of the real world around her. And not just for the sake of tennis.

Watch: Billie Jean King is urging people to #filltheMCG for the Women’s T20 World Cup final on Sunday.

Video by ICC

The $9 that changed women’s sport.

Billie Jean King’s story is a fabled one. That daydreaming teenager not only went on to win 39 Grand Slam titles and become the World No. 1, she also changed the shape of women’s sport.

Fifty years ago this September, Billie Jean and eight fellow female players revolted against the enormous pay discrepancy between male and female competitors. Despite threats from the tennis establishment that they would lose their rankings and be banned from competing at Grand Slams, the now-legendary ‘Original 9’ signed symbolic $1 contracts to establish a new women’s tour.

Three years later, Billie Jean founded the Women’s Tennis Association — now the peak body for women’s professional tennis. The same year, she won the now-iconic ‘Battle of the Sexes’ exhibition match against retired men’s No.1, Bobby Riggs.

That remains one of the most-watched matches in tennis history and a giant middle-finger to those who question/ed the merit of the women’s game. In 2017, it was even turned into a Hollywood film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

Billie Jean King's win over Bobby Riggs was hailed as a triumph for female athletes (and women!) everywhere. Images: Getty.
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Billie Jean and those nine $1 contracts not only birthed professional women's tennis (the current World No.1, Aussie Ashleigh Barty, took home more than $16 million in prize money in 2019), they created a precedent for pay negotiation that ricocheted around the sporting world. And beyond.

"It's just amazing how women have been taught to be happy with the crumbs," Billie Jean said. "But the attitudes are really starting to change. Women have started to change their own attitude which is the most important thing, but also the men of this generation, and the generation before, have been stepping up and really believing in the women. And I cannot tell you what a difference that has made.

"Back in my day, the men didn't want us to do well at all. It was really rough at the beginning when we're trying to do professional tennis; the men would have been much happier if we'd just gone away."

"Girls need to see it to believe it."

Evidence of those (albeit slowly) changing attitudes is right here in Australia, with the creation of the likes of the AFL Women's and the Women's Big Bash League and, of course, the Women's T20 World Cup tournament.

The final between Australia and India will be held in Melbourne on Sunday, March 8 — International Women's Day — and Billie Jean will be among those in the crowd. She's been a big part of the push to see the match break a world record for attendance at a women's sporting event; a feat that will take packing the MCG to its more than 90,000-seat capacity.

The record, Billie Jean said, would signal that the future of sport is more cooperative, more inclusive and more diverse.

https://twitter.com/ICC/status/1234108694184497153

"These are the things that we want sports, as a platform, to tell the world — actually, not just tell the world, show the world," she said. "Girls, particularly, need to see it to believe it. It gives them confidence. It gives them something to look forward to, to dream... and to know 'there's a place for you, if you make it.'

"We need to keep doing that for wheelchair sports, too. We need to do these kinds of things for everyone, so everyone gets a chance to participate."

To those girls watching on Sunday, Billie Jean has this advice: "Women are taught to be perfect and boys are taught to be brave. And girls have to throw that out, because nobody's perfect."

Rather than perfection, she encourages girls and women to focus on self-belief. And perhaps unsurprisingly, she argues that playing sport is one of the best ways to achieve that.

"Women get a lot of messages not to trust our body, buy sport teaches us how to trust our bodies," she said. "When we get stronger physically it helps us be stronger emotionally and mentally. That's why I want girls to be in sports. They don't have to be number one, and they don't have to be any good, as far as ranking. I just want them to experience the jumping, the freedom they'll have from knowing their bodies and believing in them."

To be part of history, grab your tickets for the final ICC T20 Women's World Cup in Melbourne on Sunday, March 8. Limited tickets are still available via the tournament website.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day with our charity partner Room To Read, and our goal is to get to 1,000 girls every day. To help empower women this International Women's Day, you can donate to Room to Read and make a difference in girls' futures.

Feature image: Getty.

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