Billie Jean King More than Great Tennis

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honor a civilian can receive in the U.S. And among the 16 people who received the award Wednesday from President Barack Obama was tennis legend Billie Jean King.

King, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone noted on "The Early Show" Thursday, was a trailblazer for the tennis world, as well as for women's rights.

Blackstone caught up with King at a tennis center in San Diego last week as she prepared to receive the award. At the tournament, Blackstone said, King offered advice, signed autographs and showed her trademark enthusiasm.

However, not everyone knew who King was.

Tournament player Gabrielle Otero, a 14-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., told Blackstone she didn't have any idea who King was before the tournament.

"She was way before my age," Otero said.

However, players quickly learn of King's impact on the sport.

Michelle Warwick, a 17-year-old from Meridien, Idaho, said, "As a female tennis player...she changed everything."

King told CBS News, "Tennis gave me a platform. When I was 12, I had an epiphany that I want to change things."

In her stellar career, King won 39 grand slam titles. For most of those titles, however, the prize money was just a third of the men's champion. She pushed for equal pay, which women now have. King was also a driving force in getting the federal law known as Title IX passed, which guaranteed women equal access to school sports.

"Everybody used to say how radical I was," King said. "I just thought I was pragmatic."

Though she dominated women's tennis, her most celebrated match was against former men's champion Bobby Riggs. It was billed: the Battle of the Sexes.

"And I knew it was going to touch the emotions of people and it did," King said. "...It got pretty heated."

The event remains the most-watched tennis match ever, with 50 million viewers for what, Blackstone pointed out, seemed like a giant spectacle. But to King, the stakes were far greater.

"It's about history," King said. "It's about changing the way the world thinks."

Her convincing win wasn't just a victory for women's tennis; it helped move the game into the mainstream.

"The attendance went up for all of us," she said. "Everyone won, everybody won from that, except Bobby. And yet he won too. Because he helped make a difference."

For a new generation that has come to expect equality, Blackstone said, King's battles are a revelation.

Otero said it's important to have King's history. Why?

"Because it's my future," she said. "And she started it."
  • CBSNews

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.