A pioneering queen and court marshal

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A leading work of reference calls her "perhaps the most important single figure in the history of women's tennis" but let's not pussyfoot around here. The word "perhaps" does not belong in the vicinity of any description of Billie Jean King.

A leading work of reference calls her "perhaps the most important single figure in the history of women's tennis" but let's not pussyfoot around here. The word "perhaps" does not belong in the vicinity of any description of Billie Jean King.

This fireman's daughter from Long Beach, California, ignited a conflagration that razed the rickety, privileged structure of the sport and built in its place, brick by painful brick, the edifice from which all those who followed her have taken much pride and an awful lot of money.

As winner of a record 20 titles at Wimbledon (six singles, 10 doubles and four mixed) Billie Jean inscribed her name as the most prolific player in the history of the greatest tournament. As a competitor whose exuberance frequently outshone her genius, she may not stand atop that exclusive league table, which also includes Lenglen, Wills Moody, Connolly, Court, Evert, Navratilova and Graf, but in terms of sheer achievement she is incomparable.

Never more so than on a September night in 1973. A winner of 38 Grand Slam titles, her most memorable match and the one of most significance to women's tennis was a grudge encounter in the circus atmosphere of the Houston Astrodome. Bobby Riggs, Wimbledon champion of 1939 and, at 55, capable player and supreme self-promoter, challenged Billie Jean, the leading tennis feminist. At first she refused and instead, on Mother's Day, Riggs routed Margaret Court 6-2 6-1. So Billie Jean agreed to face Riggs in what is remembered, by those who knew or cared little about tennis, as the greatest match ever. In front of 30,472, still the biggest crowd to watch a tennis contest, she triumphed 6-4 6-3 6-3 in "The Battle of the Sexes". She picked up the winner-take-all $200,000, but more important, her ambition was achieved. Women's sport was on the map.

Having taken up tennis at the comparatively late age of 11, she had soon done enough on the concrete public courts of California to earn invitations to the private clubs. Her first glimpse of the sport's elitist bedrock brought a private promise that she would change it. Billie Jean was 12 at the time and by 17, already a Wimbledon doubles champion, she was "pretty fidgety with the whole scene".

Seven years on, that fidgety feeling had worsened. Wimbledon led the way in 1968 by openly paying prize money, bringing the comment from Billie Jean: "Finally, our sport was honest." She was delighted to be declared champion that year alongside Rod Laver but incensed that he was paid £2,000 while she collected £700.

Striking out the only way she knew, vociferously, in pursuit of her beliefs and parity for women, she suffered suspension, bans and vilification. In 1970 she and eight others signed a contract for one dollar each to play a women-only circuit backed by Virginia Slims. Ann Jones, one of the founding nine, recalls: "Billie Jean pulled it together, kept it together and put them on the right road." As the star and spokeswoman, as well as winner of most of the early tournaments despite knee problems, Billie Jean slogged on until she had proved the truth in the tour slogan "You've come a long way, baby."

In 1965 Billie Jean Moffitt had married Larry King and together they started World Team Tennis, an inter-city vaudeville version of the sport which has been called "the moustache on the Mona Lisa" but which still flourishes. More suspensions followed and though Billie Jean survived, her marriage didn't after the outing of a love affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett.

What changed everything was beating Riggs. "It had nothing to do with tennis but everything to do with social status," she said later. "To try to change the hearts and minds of people, to persuade parents their daughters should have equal opportunity with their sons." That attitude remains unchanged. "I would like every child in the world to have the chance to play tennis," she says, "to be able to run and jump and feel the wind in your hair."

The explosion of TV interest and contracts ensured women's tennis would indeed go a long way, baby. Billie Jean, though, always preferred the doubles game. "You share it with somebody, and I like collaboration. Winning in singles is much more lonely. Performing is temporary, friendship can be everlasting." Eventually, after a final triumph at the age of 39, she turned to administration and coaching, helping Martina Navratilova to come within one title of her own Wimbledon record and captaining the American Fed Cup team to world victories in 1996 and again this year.

Even the onset of skin cancer could not diminish her zest or trim the workload of this much-honoured woman. My own abiding memory is of her at the French Open, swathed in protective clothing and towels against the sun, cheering on a member of her Fed Cup team.