The Triumphs and Defeats of the Woman King A review of the autobiography of the most famous women’s tennis champion

All In: An Autobiography

By Billie Jean King, with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers (2012,Alfred A. Knopf) 487 pages, with 24 pages of unnumbered pictures, three appendices, and an index.

Nearly thirty years ago, in the pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Foster Wallace published a goggle-eyed critique of a top female tennis player’s memoir that broadened into a hypothesis about the role of the athlete in society. Later republished as “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” in Consider the Lobster (2005) and again posthumously in “On Tennis: Five Essays” (2014), the ostensible book review levels two allegations against its eponymous author and ghostwriter Christine Brennan’s contributions to Beyond Center Court: My Story (1992). Most simply, Wallace suggests that the writing is “breathtakingly insipid” (142), laying out a series of the book’s least impressive sentences at what should be emotionally resonant and psychologically revealing moments. More importantly, though, Wallace argues that the memoir’s flavorless prose commits an even more egregious offense: the book “forgets who it’s supposed to be for.” (144) According to Wallace, “we average unbeautiful watchers” (143) continue to be drawn to top athletes’ memoirs because athletes embody abstract values such as power and grace and control, and “us plain old plumbers and accountants” (150) deeply desire to know what it feels like “to be both beautiful and best.” (143) Rather than revealing this kind of abstract insight, though, Austin’s memoir instead offers bland pablum and corporate PR-speak that seems designed to elicit a cheery thank-you note from celebrity friends checking for their names in the index.

Fair enough as it goes: Austin’s memoir is woeful, and panning badly written athlete memoirs in a semi-serious tone apparently brings readers and writers enough joy that Miles Wray filed sixteen columns in a feverish 2013-2014 series titled “Reviews of Self-Help Books by Professional Athletes” at the humorist site McSweeney’s. But where Wallace extends beyond the gleeful hatchet job is in his subsequent generalization. By linking Austin’s memoir to cliché-ridden, insight-free post-match interviews and leaning on the trope of the “dumb jock,” Wallace submits that “great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate” (152) in relating their in-the-moment prowess to others. Wallace confesses his own experience as a middling junior tennis player overcome in high-pressure moments by “the Iago-like voice of the self” (154) to hypothesize that the most successful athletes spout bland clichés as simple mantras to be invoked and obeyed—they can actually shut off the self-conscious narrator who harangues us and causes us to doubt ourselves throughout our daily lives. A bit patronizingly, Wallace suggests that these athletes are “maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened.” (155) He posits, ergo, both in this review and in later profiles of journeyman Michael Joyce and superstar Roger Federer, that the role of the athlete in society is a sort of holy ascetic whose grace and genius cannot be communicated by the athlete, but only by a sort of writerly amanuensis—you know, someone like Wallace himself. 1

Reading David Foster Wallace in 2022 is a much different experience now than it was even a decade ago, not least because of the posthumous revelations of Wallace’s misogyny and sexual violence reported by DFW biographer D. T. Max in 0. Changes in cultural mores have de-canonized Wallace to the point that Yale literary scholar Amy Hungerford dedicated a chapter of her Making Literature Now (2016) to justify “Not Reading DFW.” Nevertheless, returning to Wallace’s tennis writing helps us recognize how much the place of sport has changed in American culture since the mid-1990s. I will not say that Wallace’s major arguments about the quality of athlete memoirs and the role of the athlete in society were always wrong, self-serving though they may have always been. The publication and film industries and sports public relations have changed markedly, and the evolution in the production of athlete-voiced essays, documentaries, and memoirs merit more space than I can offer here. However, at least on the topic of athlete memoirs and the athlete’s role in society, Wallace is certainly wrong now.

To prove the point, consider Billie Jean King’s recent memoir All In (2021), written with Johnette Howard, a former sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and ESPN and author of an excellent character study and history of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry-cum-friendship in women’s tennis, and with narrative framing from Maryanne Vollers, whose Ghosts of Mississippi (1995), on the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, was nominated for a National Book Award. It may be the exception that proves Wallace’s rule to some extent, but All In sets a new standard for the heights that an athlete’s memoir can reach, while simultaneously modeling a robust role for the engaged athlete in society. As a literary achievement, it is the best tennis memoir that I have ever read (eclipsing Andre Agassi’s gossipy-but-sincere Open (2009)), and it rivals Raymond Arsenault’s magisterial 2018 biography of Arthur Ashe, John McPhee’s Levels of the Game (1969), and Wallace himself for the best tennis writing of all time. What makes the memoir so successful?

I will not say that Wallace’s major arguments about the quality of athlete memoirs and the role of the athlete in society were always wrong, self-serving though they may have always been…. However, at least on the topic of athlete memoirs and the athlete’s role in society, Wallace is certainly wrong now.

First, All In does an excellent job of contextualizing Billie Jean King’s personal and professional life within both Cold War conservatism and the staid country club culture of elite tennis as it moved from an amateur endeavor to a professional industry. Early chapters build a family genealogy while signaling how Billie Jean Moffitt inherited her firefighter father’s athleticism and quickness to anger and her homemaker mother’s eagerness to please and reticence to having difficult conversations. The family, which also includes younger brother Randy, a future Major League Baseball pitcher, settles into the working-class neighborhood of Wrigley Heights in Long Beach, California. Billie Jean describes being given the space to pursue her dreams even while being steered toward prescribed gender roles. To epitomize the personal conflict, King revisits a sophomore English composition in which she was asked to envision three years into her future. She imagines herself traveling to play Wimbledon, yes, but falling in love with a male player on the plane trip over and settling down to get married and have four children rather than becoming a “tennis bum.” (51) As King reflects, “The conventional ending showed just how much I had started internalizing the standard script for middle-class white women of my generation. The boilerplate goal for a girl in my era on the cusp of adulthood was a college education at best and modest achievement, as long as it didn’t interfere with marriage and children.” (51-52) Of course, King would go on to become a 39-time major champion “tennis bum,” encouraged by future husband Larry, whom she met while attending Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). The pair married in 1965 when Larry was 20 and Billie Jean only 19; after he graduates law school, they briefly attempt a traditional marriage in Hawaii that leaves her citing “the problem that has no name” from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). (101-102) They eventually find a livable balance when Billie Jean pursues tennis full-throttle and Larry creates entrepreneurial opportunities on the back of her successes.

The ability for the Kings to forge a living in tennis only existed due to a burst of labor activism and professionalization that began among tennis players in the 1960s, who pushed tennis’s four majors into the sport’s “Open Era” beginning in 1968. However, once tournaments were required to pay players openly with prize money rather than luring top players with under-the-table guarantees and per-diem expenses, male tournament directors steered their financial resources disproportionately toward male pros, who opted not to stick up for their female colleagues. Billie Jean King was the most notable name among the “Original Nine” players who broke away onto what shortly became known as the Virginia Slims Circuit by signing symbolic $1 contracts for Gladys Heldman. As the tour’s popularity grew and Billie Jean became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a calendar year and first to be named Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year (an honor she shared with UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden in 1972), King’s activism ramped up, as well. The culminating crossroads event for King—when the personal meets the political meets the professional meets the mainstream—is her 1973 exhibition match victory over senior male player and avowed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs, the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match watched by tens of millions of Americans.2 As her celebrity status rose in the 1970s, King spoke in favor of Title IX legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment, and women’s reasonable access to abortion—though in the latter instance, Larry allowed her name to be printed in a well-circulated 1972 Ms. magazine petition revealing that she had an abortion, without telling Billie Jean and before her parents knew. (196-202)

In one of the book’s best chapters, she lambastes the Cold War homophobia of a 1976 letter filed by United States Tennis Association and Women’s Tennis Association lawyers that prophesized a horde of communists in drag.

Even as she grew a greater public consciousness, King struggled to disclose her sexual identity. Only over time did King realize that while she found both men’s and women’s bodies attractive, she felt a connectedness and tenderness with women that she never found in men. “Unlike now,” she reflects, “There was very little talk in popular culture then about sexual orientation being something nuanced that resides on a continuum and can change over the course of someone’s life.” (220) King faults the implicit public relations pressure of the fledgling women’s tour and corporate endorsements, alongside the interpersonal desire not to wound her husband and parents, for essentially waiting to be outed in 1981 by former lover Marilyn Barnett in an extortion attempt that doubled as the country’s first-ever “galimony” lawsuit. (326-339) The looming financial peril of her subsequent loss of sponsorships actually forced King deeper into the closet for more than a decade, despite a then-budding relationship with South African player Ilana Kloss that has lasted more than thirty years. (In a surprising moment, King reveals she married Kloss in secret, with former New York City mayor David Dinkins presiding, and that almost no one knew until the production stages of this memoir.) (414-415) Despite speaking out in favor of transgender player Renée Richards—in one of the book’s best chapters, she lambastes the Cold War homophobia of a 1976 letter filed by United States Tennis Association and Women’s Tennis Association lawyers that prophesized a horde of communists in drag (304-305)—King acknowledges that her own internalized homophobia lasted well into the 2000s. Since then, however, King has made up for lost time through a variety of efforts, most notably as one of three openly gay athletes sent as part of the U.S. delegation to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to protest Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. (398-403) Overall, the memoir’s goal is to position King as a historical figure and an individual personage, someone capable of locating herself psychologically and geographically within distinct but overlapping circles of family, friends, the history of tennis, and a variety of twentieth- and twentyfirst-century social and political movements.

All In accomplishes this narrative self-awareness through its second commendable strength: it engages with a wide variety of source material, including two previous King memoirs and two film adaptations of The Battle of the Sexes. King obviously has her lived experience, but Howard’s The Rivals is a clear reference point for this text, as are works like Selena Roberts’s A Necessary Spectacle, Susan Ware’s Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, Grace Liechtenstein’s A Long Way, Baby: Behind the Scenes in Women’s Pro Tennis, and the 2006 HBO Portrait of a Pioneer profile of King. The memoir cites others’ memoirs—clothier Ted Tinling, friend/rival Chris Evert, and good friend Elton John stand out here—to try to grasp others’ motivations when necessary. More interesting is the rare moment when All In attempts to correct the historical record, as in her gently chiding but generally positive review of the 2017 Battle of the Sexes film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, which she argues misrepresents the status of King’s relationship with Barnett at the time of the Battle of the Sexes match; her relationship with Barnett was seriously frayed by the time of the match and a matter of significant stress for her. (404-405)

As a generous reader, I am appreciative that I am not simply given thoughts from the King of 1974; she has grown and changed over time, and her reflection on that evolution makes All In richer.

Most interesting of all, though, is when King sets out to correct herself. Until All In, King had published two unimpressive memoirs at inflection points in her career. King forthrightly admits that her 1982 memoir with sports journalist Frank Deford came about because her manager was worried about her finances after she was outed. Deford began interviewing her three weeks after she was outed, “and everything with Marilyn remained so raw and bitter [that] I barely gave him any time. I came off in the book as confused, which was true.” (335-336) King gently requests readers not to revisit that book, especially those who might now look to King as a pioneer among out LGBTQ+ athletes.

Her first memoir, 1974’s Billie Jean (with Kim Chapin), is a more interesting case. It seems at first glance a fairly straightforward attempt to capitalize on the recognition gained from her win in the Battle of the Sexes match. But what stands out from this memoir is the sense of isolation top athletes in individual sports may feel at the lonely peaks of their profession, with challengers always ready to pounce on any sense of weakness. This memoir lacks the generosity of spirit and giving nature more apparent in All In, which heralds a lineage of pioneers (including Alice Marble and Althea Gibson) and circle of comrades (including Evert, Navratilova, and Rosie Casals) in women’s tennis. Instead, the King of 1974 occasionally paints herself as an impatient innovator being dragged back by mediocre, jealous colleagues. In a surprising move, King cites reading 0 during a brief 1972 vacation to explain how she came to understand that she is “more than a tennis player now.” (138) The passage bears quoting at some length:

 

 

Sometime in the spring of 1972—I can’t remember exactly when or where it happened—Vicki Berner, who was still playing the circuit then, rushed up to me with a copy of Atlas Shrugged and said, “You’ve got to read this. You’re Dagny Taggart. You’re just like her.”

In the next few months I read the book and thought about it a lot, and during those days out by the tree stump at Stinson Beach I realized that Vicki had been exactly right; that in a lot of ways I really was like Dagny Taggart. That one book told me a lot about why I was the way I was, and why other people reacted to me, sometimes pretty strongly, the way they did. […]

It made me see how my love of tennis and what I guess you might call my fanatical desire to see the women’s circuit make a go of it worked both ways. It kept me going when I’d maybe rather have been taking a week off or at least getting a good eight hours’ sleep, but it also made me vulnerable to criticism. If I hadn’t really cared about what I was doing, then people could have said anything they wanted about me and it would have just rolled off my back. No sweat. But I did care, a lot, and that’s why I didn’t understand and couldn’t accept all the bad feedback I was getting. I had the guilts [sic] sometimes because I wasn’t strong enough to realize that I was doing the right thing. Instead, I found myself thinking, “Maybe I’m not right about this or that after all.” And confusion was making me learn to hate something I really did love.

I decided, over a long period of time, to become selfish. That’s an awkward word, because all my life I’d been taught to be altruistic, to give unto others and all that. But what is altruism? It comes down to the old question: Is the philanthropist who gives ten million to some charity acting out of true altruism or out of self-interest? Had I gotten involved in all those hassles just “for the good of the game” or because that’s really what gave me, Billie Jean King, the most pleasure and satisfaction? The answer, of course, was both—it wasn’t a question of either-or—but understanding that I didn’t have to feel guilty about my motives, despite what other people said, made things a whole lot easier for me. […]

I found I was able to stop having to justify the money I made. People said I was becoming mercenary, and that used to bother me. But why? Money sure wasn’t the end of the rainbow and I’d never felt it was my only motive for playing, but I also felt that I earned everything I made, and that I deserved what I got. And it hadn’t come easy, either. I’d worked my fanny off for every cent.

I decided I was responsible to myself first, and to no one else. (132-133)

 

 

Little wonder that the liberal feminist icon of All In wants a re-do on that messaging, which acclaims the virtue of selfishness and claims to find a self-serving nature behind the façade of charitable giving. In All In, King does a bit more literary criticism, reinterpreting her takeaways from Atlas Shrugged: “[Dagny] Taggart is an unconventional protagonist: a workaholic woman who runs her family’s railroad company and is treated like an outsider. I could relate to that. But another theme of the novel—the idea that self-sacrifice for the good of society is immoral, and that unproductive people are parasites—was too cold and heartless to me. I liked how the book reinforced my belief that an individual can make a difference. But unlike Rand, I believe that all of us can make a difference, not just the strongest or most gifted or privileged among us.” (214) I am not certain that the King who co-authored a memoir in 1974 would agree with the King who co-authored a memoir in 2021. You can almost imagine Johnette Howard and Billie Jean King sitting down together to strategize a way to explain King’s inspirational invocation of a text that many American libertarian conservatives now cite as their favorite novel.

I do not want to suggest that King’s interpretation from 1974 is more valid, honest, or true than her interpretation in 2021. What I do want to suggest, though, is that King provides a relatable model of how people’s values and beliefs change over time, especially as a result of the cultures and social networks in which they reside, and how, as a result, their opinions on works of art can fluctuate, as well. As the rhetorician V. Jo Hsu has argued, personal writing and self-narration over the course of a life is “the ongoing renegotiation of individual and collective identities.” 3 Revising the meaning of events or importance of texts in your own life over time is never an act of deception; instead, it is an act of emplacement within contexts and among audiences with whom you want to communicate. As a generous reader, I am appreciative that I am not simply given thoughts from the King of 1974; she has grown and changed over time, and her reflection on that evolution makes All In richer.

Rather than the common view of life as a “marathon,” King instead prefers the metaphor of “a series of sprints—you get to start over and over again, always adapting to the long and winding road in front of you.”

At the same time, a third strength of All In—and a further rebuttal of David Foster Wallace’s critiques of the athlete memoir—is its ability to put us in the athlete’s frame of mind during high-stress competition, especially an athlete who has doubts and struggles to turn off the “Iago-like voice of the self.” In a section with real stylistic ingenuity, All In switches to present tense to recount the actual Battle of the Sexes match against Riggs, an indication of its importance in her career and public persona. The point of view is not strictly limited to King’s internal monologue during her 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory, though; our narrator in All In gains omniscience and incorporates some of the ABC commentary, as well, including brief reflections on play-by-play commentator Howard Cosell’s sexualized introduction of her as a representative anecdote of the entrenched attitudes she sought to overturn. (249-251) King admits to changing her planned strategy minutes before the match started to capitalize on her superior fitness, preparing herself for the television spectacle and amateur-looking linespeople, and briefly feeling sorry for Riggs as his hand started to cramp late in the third set, before invoking a few banal clichés—“One ball at a time. Nothing else. Execute!” (256)—to close out the match. In closing the chapter, she also thoroughly dispels a 2013 ESPN feature that suggested Riggs threw the match to pay off mafia debts. (259) King moves into a near game-by-game account in one other location, her 1971 U.S. Open semifinal victory over a teenage Evert. The match has pivotal importance to her not only because she feared for the Virginia Slims tour’s survival had an amateur won the tournament, but also because it was “a thunderclap start to a deep, lifelong friendship.” (196)

Ultimately, though, what makes Billie Jean King captivating today is not her success as a tennis player in the 1970s, but how that will and drive to be the very best translated to other ventures and passions during her playing career and in the decades since her retirement. What people find in All In is a model of what an engaged, vibrant life looks like for athletes (or retired athletes) with a social conscience. To start, she simplifies “activism” to an observation about her lived experience: “the world I wanted didn’t exist yet.” (7) Activism, then, is the pursuit of bringing that world into being. In lived experience, for King, that meant equal opportunities and equitable rewards without the blight of gender discrimination—a broadened sense of the lives that it might be possible to live. Whereas David Foster Wallace looked to elite sport for the embodiment of “power and grace and control,” King abstracts her own pursuit into a set of three values—equality, love, and especially freedom—that motivated her engagement and, in the process, redefine the role of the contemporary athlete in society. Eyes may turn to athletes for aesthetic reasons, but the platform of athletic success is valuable only inasmuch as it can be mobilized for greater gains. In her conclusion, King offers an eloquent reminder about the slow and unsteady pace of institutional and social change, analogizing it to the day-by-day investment of time and effort required to achieve success as an athlete: “When you read about history, you think it’s gone by very fast, but when you live it, it’s very slow. Progress is slow. Sometimes we have what seem like overnight revolutions, but these usually represent sudden tipping points after a long period of struggle. The road to success is filled with obstacles, the ebb and flow of measurable victories and setbacks; that’s the nature of the change game. Winning is a process. It’s important to stay in the moment for each battle as it’s happening. Be clear about your goals. You must decide for yourself, What would define winning? And if you can come to see even failure as feedback, the information will help you plan your next step.” (418) Rather than the common view of life as a “marathon,” King instead prefers the metaphor of “a series of sprints—you get to start over and over again, always adapting to the long and winding road in front of you.” (419)

A generous reading might suggest that the money from corporate partnerships gives athletes the ability to be more selective about their commitments and to redistribute their wealth to causes they deem notable. King basically says as much in responding to critics of her financial success in the 1970s.

To close, I will inject one minor note of caution into what is otherwise a whole-hearted positive review of All In. Quite simply: King’s modes of activism may not work for everyone. There is a sense of pragmatism throughout the narrative that imbues King’s activism: she works incrementally and from the inside of institutions, and she builds interpersonal relationships and is willing to compromise, standing up for core principles without alienating others. (131) She emphasizes pie-building and pie-sharing, on economic equity and opportunity ahead of justice. But King spends little time on the moral costs of these compromises. Nowhere is this more evident than in a brief section justifying the women’s tour’s longtime partnership with Phillip Morris and the Virginia Slims brand of cigarettes, an interesting echo of a 1993 debate that played out in The New York Times, when a set of “merchants of doubt” were still proclaiming the lack of data to prove smoking’s lethality. King writes that she took a set of objections to tour operator Gladys Heldman but was rebuffed with a simple question: “You want a tour or not?” That ended any debate. (178-179)

In microcosm, this foreclosing of meaningful debate may be the “original sin” of athlete activism: What moral compromises are required when social change is dependent on corporate and institutional support, and how can athletes determine when too many strings are attached? Athlete activists—and anyone seeking social change—must answer this question for themselves, again and again. It is an argument that sport rhetorician Abe Khan has made recently, suggesting that athletes have more political potential as laborers seeking “leverage” in antagonistic relationships against these institutions rather than as symbols pursuing “persuasion” while being platformed by these institutions. Whether and how to accept institutional funding, with strings attached, was also at the heart of the acrimonious NFL Players Coalition split in 2018. It may be profitable for Nike to feature Colin Kaepernick now, but that may not always be the case. Nike will market what is likely to move product, and that approach will vary from market to market. In the award-winning spot that he narrates, Kaepernick’s original message challenging police brutality against Black Americans, yoked to the discourses of citizenship and patriotism evoked by the National Anthem, is watered down to “Believe in something, even if means sacrificing everything,” and Nike can distract from its own history of mistreating workers in sweatshop conditions and marketing luxury consumer goods to neighborhoods where where “sneaker hype” led to muggings and even murders. Though King and other women’s players once sought leverage at a time when they were clearly underpaid relative to their market value, that’s no longer the case—at least not for top-tier tennis players. As a result, corporate partnerships may seem more beneficial than compromising, part of the air in which elite athletes already breathe. Certainly, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have found them fruitful to date. A generous reading might suggest that the money from corporate partnerships gives athletes the ability to be more selective about their commitments and to redistribute their wealth to causes they deem notable. King basically says as much in responding to critics of her financial success in the 1970s. (201) Money offers a form of freedom—that is a message Ayn Rand would get behind. But as produced by corporate endorsements, that money may come with strings. It is as though this King of the 1970s has never met the King of the early 1980s who gets outed and loses millions of dollars in scheduled endorsements, with one CEO writing a letter that not only fires her but calls her a “slut.” (340) The stress and immediate financial strain is so bad, she admits, that she contracted the skin disorder vitiligo overnight. (341-342) Her retirement plan crumbles, and she is forced to play on tour for several years more than she wanted to, further damaging her already chronically-injured knees, worsening an eating disorder that plagued her until her early 50s, and retreating further into the closet. These are the physical consequences of relying upon corporate partners for platforms and financial resources. Yet with regard to King’s pragmatic approach to social change, it is impossible to tell where her individual personality ends and where corporate sponsorship expectations begin. That, more than anything, may be the greatest risk of all.

1 For more on David Foster Wallace’s tennis writing and its ongoing relevance, see my “The Spirituality of Sport and the Role of the Athlete in the Tennis Writing of David Foster Wallace,” Communication and Sport 6.2 (2018): 219-238.

2 For more on Riggs as one of the original avatars for the humor of the “male chauvinist pig,” see Julie Willett, The Male Chauvinist Pig: A History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021): 11-35.

3 V. Jo Hsu, “A Single Life Reinvented: Personal Writing as the Negotiation of Identity in Richard Rodriguez’s Autobiographical Trilogy,” Rhetoric Review 35.4 (2016): 361.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!