Tribute to Billie Jean King on 50th anniversary of her RG triumph

American legend is honoured in a ceremony on women's semi-finals day in Paris

Billie Jean King, Amelie Mauresmo, Gilles Moretton, Roland Garros 2022© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Taking her chance on a short reply, Billie Jean King makes a beeline for the net.

It is a shrewd ploy on the more sure-footed hard courts or the slick grass courts at the time at the other three Grand Slams.

A chipped approach on the terre battue leaves her exposed but a lunging volley draws a passing shot long from defending champion Evonne Goolagong and the Californian flings her racquet skyward.

Her sheer delight is patent. Finally, King has completed the career Grand Slam on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

At 28, already with six singles crowns from the other three majors to her name, she was told she would never conquer Europe’s red clay.

"I was born and raised in California, where they don't teach us to slide. But to play well on clay, it has to become something natural", King said in an interview with the official magazine of Roland-Garros.

"It is every clay player’s dream to win Roland-Garros because it is an achievement indeed, but the other players – those who are not very comfortable on clay – also want to win it because it is their biggest challenge. I was not a clay player myself, but when it came to the court’s geometry, the drop shots and the aesthetic, it suited my game in a way."

An homage to a legend

On the 50th anniversary of her most improbable triumph, King returns to Roland-Garros.

On Thursday, her milestone achievement will be honoured on court, while after the women’s singles semi-finals, big screens on Court Suzanne-Lenglen will show The Battle of the Sexes, retracing the story of her match against Bobby Riggs in 1973.

The now 78-year-old will also receive the Legion d’Honneur from French President Emmanuel Macron at Élysée Palace on Friday for her fight for women's sport, gender equality and the rights of LGBTQ people in sport.

“I am prouder of what I have done off-court than as an athlete, even though my tennis career was not so bad, was it?” King said. “I guess being the world's No.1 and winning Grand Slam tournaments, including Roland-Garros, is quite an achievement. But I am prouder to have fought for gender equality…

“Tennis would be my platform and, if I could become the world's best player, it would be better to have my voice heard.

“I knew that, as a woman, it would be much harder, but it would be even harder for my coloured-skin peers. I had the opportunity to make the world a slightly better place. It was a revelation; since then, it has guided my life and I have never changed course.”

Billie Jean King / Roland-Garros©Pressesports

Conquering the clay

King had only made the journey across the Atlantic to the red clay courts of Roland-Garros four times prior to her watershed 1972 triumph, where her best result was a semi-final from 1968.

King was heavily invested in the promotion and development of women's tennis at the time as one of the Original Nine members.

Managing off-court commitments and her own career became quite the juggling act, but King spotted a window of opportunity to pursue her Parisian dream in 1972. Her great rival Margaret Court was on maternity leave, while recent US Open semi-finalist, Chris Evert, was back at school. Martina Navratilova was yet to begin her career.

King defeated fellow Original Nine member Valerie Ziegenfuss in the round of 16 before a convincing win over British sixth seed Virginia Wade.

In the semi-finals she avenged defeat to German Helga Niessen Masthoff, the woman she had fallen to in the quarter-finals two years earlier.

Top-seeded Australian Goolagong was the final hurdle.

Original 9 : clockwise from top left: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Julie Heldman, Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Dalton. Chris Smith / Volvo Car Open

“I had a lot of respect for Evonne. She was the title holder; she could win on any surface,” King said. “I also was lucky that Chris Evert did not participate that year because she still was a secondary school student. But I felt a huge relief and a lot of excitement. I was so happy because everybody kept saying I would never win anything on clay.”

Goolagong had claimed Roland-Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back in 1971 and had taken down home favourite Francoise Durr to reach consecutive finals in Paris.

Seeded third, King’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Goolagong was a precursor to Wimbledon and US Open title runs that season.

She had tamed the clay of Roland-Garos without conceding a set.

“Times have changed and for us; it was special, wonderful and a unique moment on clay,” she said. “In a way, Roland-Garros is the Grand Slam tournament for which the spirit has changed the least; it thrives on tradition…

"History has left a mark on the tournament, and it is still visible today.”

The same will long be said of King's mark on and off the court. A reflection upon history will serve any necessary reminder.