Billie Jean King honored with Medal of Freedom award by President Barack Obama
Billie Jean King would love to head to the tennis court at the White House after she receives the Medal of Freedom.
But the tennis great hasn’t hit balls for nearly a year and needs two knee replacements before she can play again.
King is among 16 honorees who will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Aug. 12. Others include Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
“It’s another one I can’t believe,” King told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Phoenix on Friday. “Sandra Day O’Connor, hello. Tutu, Ted, I was overwhelmed when I heard it. What about Milk man? I was so excited for the community.
“I think it’s the first time the LGBT community has been acknowledged. It’s another breakthrough.”
King is thought to be the first female athlete to receive the nation’s highest honor for a civilian, which was first handed out in 1945. The announcement Thursday said the recipients were selected for their work as “agents of change.”
A tennis leader, innovator and promoter for equal prize money, King won 39 Grand Slam titles and a record 20 Wimbledon crowns. She helped create the WTA tour in 1973, which competes in 54 events in 31 countries for $86 million in prize money.
King became one of America’s first openly gay major sports figures when she revealed her sexual orientation in 1981.
“I’m very visible because of being able to play tennis,” she said. “Believe me, Harvey Milk, that’s a whole other discussion. I’m so thrilled he’s going to be recognized.”
King met Obama for the first time on June 23 when the White House marked the 37th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to offer equal athletic and educational opportunities to men and women. King was on a panel of experts on sports, science, math and education.
“He’s great. He puts you at ease,” King said. “He remembered seeing me practice in Hawaii. He went to Punahou School and came over to watch me practice.”
Along with the President’s well-documented love for basketball, the Obamas also play tennis. Daughters Sasha and Malia take lessons in Georgetown.
“He plays tennis, Michelle is crazy about it,” King said. “The girls love it, they play. (At the White House) they have a tennis court and they put down basketball lines as well.”
The 65-year-old King hopes to have knee replacement operations in the next year so she can return to the court.
“I love my tennis and I miss it,” she said.
King has become a global mentor of a joint WTA and UNESCO program to promote women’s equality in sport. She hosted the Billie Jean King Cup, which brought women’s tennis back to Madison Square Garden in March after a nearly nine-year absence.
King is in Phoenix visiting her 87-year-old mother, Betty Jean Moffitt, who will attend the ceremony at the White House.
“When I was 7, I said, ‘Mom, I know I’m going to do something great with my life,”‘ King said. “She said, ‘That’s all right, just get the dishes done.”‘