Billie Jean King in 2007 (Pic: David Shankbone)
The first openly lesbian Wimbledon champion, Billie Jean King, has called on top tennis players to express support for their gay colleagues.
Speaking to Tennis.com, the American legend revealed that she lost all her endorsement contracts within 24 hours of being outed in 1981.
“I was just getting ready to leave the game. And I had all these wonderful contracts happening. And I was finally going to make some money. Because my generation didn’t make any of the big bucks the way the next generation did. It was really an important time for me to have my financial security, and that wasn’t going to happen.”
She said however that she believed that her outing had a positive impact:
“I think all that helped though. I think every time somebody comes out, it just pushes us forward. It’s harder for people once they know you. They have a harder time thinking it’s wrong.”
King added that for gay male tennis players – a few of whom she was aware of – to come out the closet, the circuit champions need to show they would be unconcerned about their colleagues’ sexuality.
“We need straight people, particularly in the male arena, to support the gay guys… Federer and Nadal and those guys have to say we don’t care. Once the influence starts to talk like that, it makes a huge difference… That’s part of the responsibility of being in the Top 10, the Top 5 in the world. That goes hand in hand with making the big bucks, getting the most exposure, getting the most endorsements. That’s part of the deal, I think, if you’re going to be in that position,” she said.
While King was followed by Martina Navratilova, an openly lesbian player, no prominent professional male tennis player has ever come out the closet.
According to AfterElton.com, the last known gay men’s tennis champion was Bill Tilden, who won three Wimbledon and seven US titles between 1920 and 1930; he was however not open about his sexuality.