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Billie Jean King's equal prize money advocacy at 1973 US Open to be celebrated

Billie Jean King's threat to boycott the US Open in 1972 led to equal prize money and transformed women's tennis.

In 1972, Billie Jean King won the US Open, but instead of expressing her hopes for future victories, she made a bold statement. She threatened to boycott the tournament the following year, and she declared that no other women would participate either. The reason for her protest was the significant pay disparity between the male and female champions. King received $10,000 for her win, while Ilie Nastase, the men's champion, earned $15,000 more.

King recalled feeling frustrated and disappointed by the unfairness of the situation. She questioned whether she was making the right decision and worried about the potential backlash. However, she ultimately decided to take a stand and refuse to play in the next US Open unless equal prize money was implemented.

As a result of King's bold stance, the US Tennis Association (USTA) made history in 1973 by becoming the first sports organization to offer equal prize money to male and female competitors at a major tournament. This groundbreaking decision will be celebrated this year during the US Open, which takes place at the facility named after King.

Stacey Allaster, the first female US Open tournament director, acknowledged the USTA's forward-thinking approach in 1973. She emphasized the importance of King's courage and leadership in paving the way for women in tennis and beyond.

King was aware of a survey conducted during that time, which revealed that female players were more popular than they had realized. However, she believed that popularity alone was not enough. She understood that equal pay was necessary to truly recognize and value the achievements of female athletes. Determined to bridge the pay gap, King actively sought out sponsors who could help make up the $15,000 difference.

Bristol Myers Squibb stepped forward and committed to covering the entire sum. It was announced that both the men's and women's US Open champions would receive $25,000. This was a significant milestone in the fight for gender equality in sports.

Fast forward to the present day, and the US Open winners now receive a staggering $3 million each, with the total player compensation reaching $65 million. Tennis has become a lucrative profession for female athletes, with seven of the top 10 highest-paid women's athletes in 2022 being tennis players, according to Forbes.

Lew Sherr, the executive director of the USTA, recognizes the progress made since the introduction of equal prize money 50 years ago. He believes that the presentation of the sport and the establishment of equal pay have played a crucial role in the achievements of women in tennis.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tour was also established in 1973, the same year King defeated Bobby Riggs in the historic "Battle of the Sexes," which remains the most-watched tennis match in history. The formation of the WTA Tour further solidified the advancement of women's tennis.

While equal pay took longer to be implemented in the other Grand Slam tournaments, King sees progress accelerating in women's sports today. She recently attended the Women's World Cup in Australia, which drew large crowds and garnered significant TV ratings. Additionally, she is an investor in various professional women's and men's teams and events.

Earlier this year, the WTA announced plans to increase the prize money at select high-profile tournaments to match that of the men's. This move signifies a growing recognition of the value and potential of women's sports.

The US Open has also taken steps to showcase both genders equally. Matches are scheduled on marquee courts and given equal television coverage to ensure equal visibility and recognition.

It is worth noting that equal pay at the other Grand Slam tournaments came much later, with the Australian Open implementing it in 2001, followed by the French Open in 2006, and Wimbledon in 2007. Venus Williams played a significant role in advocating for equal pay at Wimbledon.

The progress made in achieving equal pay in tennis has brought immense satisfaction to Venus Williams. She expressed her happiness that no woman competing in a Grand Slam tournament today has to worry about unequal pay. They can simply focus on playing tennis and pursuing their dreams.

As for Billie Jean King, she continues to make an impact on and off the court. Despite taking breaks from the sport, she has returned to playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday night, she will participate in a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the advancements that resulted from her courageous stand for equal pay.

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