All In by Billie Jean King review – game, set and match | Sports and leisure books

Billie Jean King learned early on that as a girl who excelled in sports, she would not always be treated fairly. There was the elementary school teacher who had noted her for using her “superior abilities” at recess games, and the tennis official who took her, 10, from a photo. of players at a tournament in California because she was wearing shorts instead of a skirt. .

King then observed prominent teens receiving free meals at the canteen of the Los Angeles Tennis Club where she trained, while she and her mother had to eat the food they brought from home to school. ‘outside. Later, as a player competing on the international stage, she would see male competitors win up to eight times the cash prize of their female counterparts. “Even if you are not a born activist,” she writes, “life may very well make you one.”

King’s memoir – written with sports journalist Johnette Howard and writer Maryanne Vollers – is a vivid, detailed account of her rise to athletic greatness and her struggles to achieve equal treatment for women in a shockingly discriminatory sport. She reveals how, in the early 1970s, she paved the way for female players by leading the breakaway movement for the first all-female professional tennis tour, despite threats it would end her career. Many male players, including Stan Smith, denounced King’s efforts; Australian player Fred Stolle told him: “Nobody wants To pay to watch you play the birds. But King was not discouraged, persuading eight others, including Rosemary Casals and Nancy Richey, to register for what would become the Virginia Slims Circuit for a token dollar bill. They were called “The Original 9” and their organization became the basis for the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association three years later.

King with the Wimbledon trophy after his victory over PF Jones in July 1967. Photography: Bettmann Archives

In 1971, King, who had spent much of the 1960s living hand-to-hand on the meager per diems handed out at amateur tournaments, won an unprecedented $ 100,000; in 1976, Chris Evert’s earnings exceeded $ 1 million. There were those who thought King’s emphasis on money was vulgar, but she remained steadfast. As Althea Gibson, the first African-American tennis player to win a Grand Slam title and one of King’s greatest inspirations, said: “You can’t eat trophies.”

Elsewhere, King remembers life-changing games with remarkable clarity, in some cases guiding us through each set. It’s not as laborious as it sounds. King revel in the drama and tension, both in his tennis and in his storytelling; given her status as a record sportswoman, her occasional drops in elation seem forgivable. The preparation of the famous match “Battle of the Sexes”, in which she played against Bobby Riggs, and the circus that surrounded him, is terribly told. Riggs, an attention-seeking 50s and self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig,” had challenged King in a fight to prove that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s tennis and was not worth investing in. Where King spent the weeks before the match training hard and studying Riggs’ game, he spent a large portion of them taunting her in media interviews and making sponsorship deals. She beat him in straight sets.

King’s campaign went beyond tennis, of course. She marched for women’s liberation alongside Gloria Steinem and, facing fierce criticism, publicly declared that she had an abortion. King has also undergone a close and unfair scrutiny of his marriage to lawyer Larry King and his sexuality. For years, she was silent about her relationships with women for fear of exploding her career (she is now a staunch advocate of the LGBTQ community). While All in contains a lot of athletic ups and downs, it’s his thoughts on that denial and secret that give him his emotional weight.

King has repeatedly lied to his family, colleagues and the media, even after a former girlfriend, Marilyn Barnett, exposed him in 1981 by filing a palimony complaint. King poignantly writes about her denials of homosexuality, which she said were the result of fear, shame, and her own internalized homophobia. “It’s a legacy of so many things, including not knowing if you can trust someone with the information,” she observes. “People in the closet often take comfort in the idea that at least they are in control of who knows the truth, when the real truth is that the closet is in control.” Later, she adds, “I didn’t fully come out and I wasn’t comfortable in my skin until I was 51. I wish I could have come out sooner.”

Nonetheless, the courage and endurance it took for King to take on a defensive, intractable and often fanatical tennis establishment, and to win, was no small feat, although it turned out that his bigger battle would be with herself. All in describes a life made up of one epic fight after another, both on and off the pitch. “But I got out of it,” she wrote in the epilogue. “I’m free.”

All In: An Autobiography is published by Viking (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. To order Delivery charges may apply.

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