Tennis Icon Billie Jean King Gets Vocal on Healthy Aging, Gender Pay Equity…and, Pickleball

Updated: Oct. 25, 2023

The 79-year-old athlete and activist is speaking up to encourage Americans to get their COVID shots this fall.

Billie Jean King recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, the tennis match in which she took on the number-one ranked men’s tennis player Bobby Riggs. King won, as 90 million people around the world watched on TV. This was the same year she courageously demanded equal prize money for men and women playing in the US Open—a feat for which she was celebrated last month at the 2023 US Open.

Billie Jean King’s storied tennis career includes 39 Grand Slam titles. She was also one of the first female professional athletes to be openly gay. Since retiring, King has used her voice to continue to promote equality both on and off the courts with the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association, the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, and most recently, the Professional Women’s Hockey League.

Now 79 years old, Bille Jean King is teaming up with Moderna for the second year in a row to urge people to consider getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In 2022, King appeared in Moderna’s “Here’s to the Changemakers” commercial which debuted at the US Open. This year’s commercial features another tennis icon, Arthur Ashe.

“I am very big on vaccines for me personally, and everyone should talk to their doctor to make sure it’s OK for them,” Billie Jean King recently told The Healthy @Reader’s Digest in an interview. “I am big on health.”

King also chatted with The Healthy about the ongoing battle for equal pay, how she stays fit, and her somewhat surprising take on pickleball.

Billie Jean King At WimbledonEvening Standard/Getty Images

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest: We just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Open becoming the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to female and male competitors. Remind us how that happened.

Billie Jean King: In 1972 at a media conference, I said, “The girls and I will not come back next year unless there is equal prize money.” Only, I had not talked to the other players, so I said, Please God, let them be OK with this because I already opened my mouth. I went out and got us a sponsor to make up the difference, and the next year in July, they announced they were going to have equal prize money.

The Healthy: What does it mean for you to finally start seeing more pro sports paying women equal to men?

Billie Jean King: It’s been 60 years in the making. You have to be very patient, and you have to be in the long game if you want change.

The Healthy: Is there any aspect of the business that still bothers you?

Billie Jean King: I get irritated when I see a young girl in a ballpark playing catch in her mitt and wearing a jersey on TV. I scream at the TV. She will buy the tickets and buy the merch, but guess what? She can’t play because of her gender. We also only get 5% of media time for women’s sports. That’s where all money and opportunity comes from—the media rights. Men get 95% of everything.

Billie Jean King At WimbledonEvening Standard/Getty Images

The Healthy: Which female pro athletes do you love watching?

Billie Jean King: There are so many great female athletes today. I love Coco [Gauff, the 2023 US Open winner]. I saw her when she was 16 giving a speech in Boca [Raton, FL] about social justice around George Floyd’s passing. I said to my friend, “She’s the one.” She can do so much on the court, but also off the court. She’s a great athlete and fun to watch.

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The Healthy: A lot of people discovered tennis during COVID-19. Why is that?

Billie Jean King: We had four million new people start playing tennis during the last COVID-19 run. It’s very good because you have social distance on the courts. Our job now is to keep the four million new people playing for their health.

The Healthy: What’s your advice for tennis players who are just starting out?

Billie Jean King: The most important thing is the drill, especially when starting to play. Players drill a lot. You have to work really hard and run all over the court and you have to be fit. That’s why tennis is so good for you.

The Healthy: Today some parents can be extremely involved in their children’s sports. What were your parents like?

Billie Jean King: My parents were very big on exercise. Health and education were everything to my parents. My parents went to one Wimbledon and the King-Riggs match. They never went to the US Open or French Open. They didn’t care if my brother and I were really good at what we did as long as we were happy. My brother played 12 years of professional baseball. We drove our parents crazy wanting to be the best. I didn’t want to be number 10. I wanted to be number one.

The Healthy: What are your thoughts on the pickleball craze?

Billie Jean King: I tried a couple of times. I have trouble with the noise when I hit the ball. The ball sounds great against strings on a racket. I think it’s great that people are playing pickleball. Anything that gets people moving and makes them happy is important.

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The Healthy: What makes you happy?

Billie Jean King: I started hitting tennis balls during the last COVID-19 [surge]. It makes me happy. I love hitting tennis balls. For me, it’s magical. Every time the ball is coming to me, I make a choice. And I know I am really lucky.

The Healthy: What else have you done to prioritize your health in recent years?

Billie Jean King: I stopped eating red meat. I feel a lot better. I would say I need my weight lower, but I am trying to be happy where I am at. I try to eat right and play tennis two to three times a week. If I can’t play, I try to do the stationary bike. I don’t keep riding at the same speed. I do two or three sprints. I just keep moving. My mom said, “Billie, just keep moving or it’s over.”

The Healthy: Our team is just about to get our vaccines for virus season. When you do fall under the weather, what makes you feel better?

Billie Jean King: I go to bed and drink a lot of fluid. I know if I lie down and get sleep I will start to get better. We travel so much and if I am going to get sick, I prefer to get sick at home.