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New Era, Same Old Fight for Female Athletes

Billie Jean King, who holds a record 20 Wimbledon titles, is a former No. 1 tennis player. She is co-founder of World TeamTennis, a coed professional league.

I came of age in a different era.

Growing up in Southern California, I dreamed about being the No. 1 tennis player. I had my first free group lesson in a public park in Long Beach, and at the end of that lesson I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: I wanted to be the greatest female player there was.

But it was a hard road for a woman. Often, I felt discounted, invisible. At the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where I went for some of my tournaments as a kid, it was as if I wasn’t there. The boys got the attention and the girls were an afterthought. We were not taken seriously.

When they heard that I wanted to be the best, they looked at me like I must be crazy. There was no professional tennis for women in those days. It simply didn’t exist.

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Today as I watch Annika Sorenstam preparing to be the first woman in 58 years on the PGA Tour, it’s a different world. People are more sophisticated than they were in the 1970s. Women athletes are taken seriously.

But women’s sports still have a long way to go. Men aren’t used to sharing the sandbox -- or in this case, the sand traps -- with women.

The fact is, the sports pages are still all about men. Sorenstam hasn’t received the attention she deserves. It seems like 7.8% of sports media is about women, 8% is about dogs and horses -- and the rest is about men.

We don’t get the attention the men get and we don’t get the attention we deserve.

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I’m almost 60 years old now. I’m sure that when people look back in history they’ll think that things changed quickly. But it seems so slow when you’re living it. Women still earn only 76 cents for every dollar a man earns. In 1973 it was 59 cents; but why haven’t we gotten to 100? African American women still earn only 59 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Thirty years ago, I played against Bobby Riggs in a match that came to symbolize women’s struggle. I was scared that day, not confident at all. Ninety-eight percent of the world thought he’d win. The odds in Las Vegas were just incredible.

Riggs had just beaten Margaret Court, the No. 1 female player at the time, on Mother’s Day. He was older than I was, but he had once been the top male player in the world. I watched old tapes of him playing at the peak of his career and I could see that he had been great.

Before the match, I kept saying to myself: I have to win. Everything is riding on this. Women’s sports is riding on it. Women’s tennis is riding on it. If I lost to Riggs I felt the women’s professional tour could fall apart; it had been going for only three years. I feared that Title IX would be threatened. I worried that they would tell us that girls couldn’t play.

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But about 15 minutes before the match I got very calm because I knew I’d done everything I could. Rosie Casals, a tennis player who commentated at the event, reminded me recently that she came up to me just before the match and I told her I was going to win.

And I did.

Today, I work with World TeamTennis, which I co-founded as an innovative coed tennis league to help show kids that men and women can play together, cooperatively.

That’s my dream: that girls and boys can see men and women cooperating on the court, working together to win.

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Because nothing is worse than what golfer Vijay Singh said -- that Sorenstam has no business playing in the Colonial and that he hoped “she misses the cut.”

The fact is, it is not easy for women to play against men, because most games are organized around the notion of strength. If sports weren’t based just on brawn I think we could compete. If golf courses were set up to be a lot shorter, if the first drive off the tee didn’t have such an emphasis on strength, it would be easier. But we didn’t create these games. They’re not set up for us.

But Sorenstam is great. She took the challenge. She has dared to compete.


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