All In by Billie Jean King review – game, set and match

All In by Billie Jean King review – game, set and match

Billie Jean King learned early that, as a girl who excelled at sport, she wouldn’t always be treated fairly. There was the elementary school teacher who marked her down for using her “superior ability” during playground games, and the tennis official who pulled her, aged 10, from a players’ photo during a California tournament because she was wearing shorts instead of a skirt.

King went on to observe top-ranking teenage boys getting free meals at the canteen of the Los Angeles Tennis Club where she trained, while she and her mother were made to eat the food they had brought from home outside. Later, as a player competing on the international stage, she would see male competitors winning up to eight times the prize money of their female counterparts. “Even if you’re not a born activist,” she writes, “life can damn well make you one.”

King’s memoir ­– written with the sports journalist Johnette Howard and writer Maryanne Vollers – is a vivid and detailed account of her rise to sporting greatness and her struggles to attain equal treatment for women in a shockingly discriminatory sport. She reveals how, in the early 1970s, she forged a path for female players by leading the breakaway movement for the first all-women’s tennis pro tour, despite threats that it would finish her career. Many male players, among them Stan Smith , denounced King’s efforts; the Australian player, Fred Stolle, told her: “No one wants to pay to watch you birds play.” But King was undeterred, persuading eight others, among them Rosemary Casals and Nancy Richey, to sign up to what would become the Virginia Slims Circuit for a token dollar bill. They were called the “Original 9” and their set-up became the basis for the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association three years later.

In 1971, King, who had spent much of the 60s living hand-to-mouth on the measly per diems dispensed during amateur tournaments, earned an unprecedented $100,000; in 1976, Chris Evert’s earnings topped $1m. There were those who felt King’s focus 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 biggest inspirations, said: “You can’t eat trophies.”

Elsewhere, it’s with remarkable clarity that King recalls life-changing matches, in some cases walking us through each set. This isn’t as laborious as it sounds. King revels in drama and tension, both in her tennis and in her storytelling; given her status as a record-breaking sportswoman, her occasional lapses into bombast seem forgivable. The build-up to the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match, in which she played against Bobby Riggs, and the circus that surrounded it, is terrifically told. Riggs, a fiftysomething attention-seeker and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig”, had challenged King to a prize fight in order to prove that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s, and not worthy of investment. Where King spent the weeks before the match training hard and studying Riggs’s game, he spent much of them taunting her in media interviews and setting up endorsement deals. She thrashed him in straight sets.

King’s campaigning went beyond tennis, of course. She marched for women’s liberation alongside Gloria Steinem and, in the face of ferocious criticism, went public about having had an abortion. King also endured intense and unfair scrutiny about her marriage to the lawyer Larry King and her sexuality. For years, she kept quiet about her relationships with women, for fear of blowing up her career (she is now a staunch advocate of the LGBTQ community). While All In contains plenty of sporting highs and lows, it is her reflections on this denial and secrecy that gives it its emotional heft.

King repeatedly lied to her family, colleagues and the media, even after a former girlfriend, Marilyn Barnett, outed her in 1981 by filing a palimony lawsuit. King writes movingly of her denials of homosexuality, which she says were a result of fear, shame and her own internalised homophobia. “It’s a legacy of so many things, including not knowing if you could trust anyone with the information,” she observes. “People in the closet often take consolation in the idea that at least they’re controlling who knows the truth, when the real truth is that the closet is controlling them.” Later she adds: “I didn’t come out completely and wasn’t comfortable in my own skin until I was 51. I wish I could have done it sooner.”

Nonetheless, the courage and stamina it took King to take on a defensive, intractable and often bigoted tennis establishment, and to win, is no small feat, even if it turned out that her biggest battle would be with herself. All In describes a life comprising one epic struggle after another, both on and off court. “But I came through it,” she writes in the epilogue. “I am free.”