Billie Jean King Cheers Equal Pay at Wimbledon

Wimbledon women have finally caught up to the men. This summer the tennis champs of both sexes will get equal pay for their play. Tennis great Billie Jean King, a tireless advocate for the women's game, is thrilled by the development.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Wimbledon women can now yell deuce. This summer they will tie the men in the amount of prize money they receive. The All-England Club made the announcement this week after years of lobbying by tennis players like Billie Jean King.

Ms. BILLIE JEAN KING (Tennis Player): It takes forever to change things in life. When you read history, things happen so fast, but when you live it, it's always so slow.

ROBERTS: Billie Jean King has lived it. The six-time Wimbledon champ helped get equal pay for women at the U.S. Open back in 1973. I asked her why the British tournament lagged so far behind.

Ms. KING: I think it's more about the culture in Britain and also in Europe. When I would talk to the people, like Tim Phillips, who's actually a fantastic guy - he's the head of the committee - I said, Tim, let's say you're right that we don't deserve it, what do you think about doing the right thing?

And he just looked at me like, I hear you. And I think actually he was pretty sympathetic, but I think it was some of the people on his committee were not. But obviously they have come around and there's enough of them.

ROBERTS: There's an argument to be made that women tennis players play best of three, men play best of five. Often the women's matches are not as tough because there's not as much depth of field and that it's not equal work. So we're not talking about equal pay for equal work. What do you - what's your response to that argument?

Ms. KING: Well, first of all, in the entertainment business you don't get paid by the hour. And secondly, we've always been willing to play three out of five sets and if anyone knows the history of Wimbledon, they would know that when women first started to play back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we did play three out of five. But you have to remember, we played in a corset, a full-length dress, couldn't show our ankles or our wrists. and I think one of the women that was participating back in the old days fainted or didn't feel very good and therefore the all-men committee decided that they would only let us play two out of three sets.

ROBERTS: So they shortened the sets instead of foregoing the corsets?

Ms. KING: You got it.

ROBERTS: You've written that if sports weren't based just on brawn, I think we women could compete.

If there's a goal to sort of appreciate the game, whether it's tennis or basketball or golf, the way women play it, is it a different game, do you think?

Ms. KING: Yes, it is different. It's different because we don't have the androgens, the testosterone that guys have, and therefore we aren't as strong. We should just be appreciated on our own, the way we are. And it doesn't mean that we're not as much fun to watch. In fact, sometimes our matches are better.

ROBERTS: And looking towards the future - in this country Title 9 has been around for 30 years - are you surprised we're still having this conversation? Do you think there'll be a time when we aren't anymore?

Ms. KING: Well, I hope someday it's a non-issue. That's what we're all fighting for. I mean, that's all - that's all about the evolution of what we're going through. I know I won't see it in my lifetime. I'm 63 now. But I know if you'd asked me this question 40 or 50 years ago, I probably would have thought we'd be farther along, but we're not.

ROBERTS: If it won't happen in your lifetime, you said, who do you see of the current generation of women athletes stepping up to be as vocal, you know, and persistent as you've been?

Ms. KING: Well, I must say, to get this equal prize money, Venus Williams was really kind of a leader on it, and she spoke up. She was amazing. And I think Venus is thinking about it. I think Maria Sharapova is very, very articulate. She gets it.

ROBERTS: Is there a little part of you that's resentful that you never got the equal prize money?

Ms. KING: Well, we got it at the U.S. Open in 1973. The U.S. Open were the first ones to step up.

No, I'm not resentful at all. In fact, when there were nine of us in 1970 that signed a $1 contract with Gladys Hellman(ph) in Houston, Texas - and that was the birth of women's professional tennis the way you know it today and the way we all know it - we knew we were not going to get the big bucks. We were just thrilled we could get it started. And we had a dream that - not only for women's tennis but for women's sports and for women.

ROBERTS: Billie Jean King is a six-time Wimbledon champion and was always compensated at the lower women's rate.

Billie Jean King, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. KING: Thanks, Rebecca.

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