Waving to the crowd with tears in her eyes, the 79-year-old hugged Obama before making her way to the microphone stand in the packed arena. Visibly caught up in emotion, all she managed at first was a big sigh.
King retired from tennis in 1983 after an illustrious career that included winning 12 Grand Slam singles titles. But her most significant victory came off the court. On the opening night of the 2023 tournament, King celebrated the 50th anniversary of the US Open becoming the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to female and male competitors.
1973 was a turning point
This year's final Grand Slam tournament offers a record purse of $65 million (€60 million) and caps off 17 consecutive years with pay equity at all four Grand Slams. King, the woman who "made it all possible," in Obama's words, found herself lost for words in the center of the biggest tennis stadium in the world.
In her tribute, Obama recalled how King, the US Open champion in 1972, allied with her fellow women's tennis players, threatening to boycott the tournament the following year unless women got the same prize money as men. That same summer, it was announced that the women's winner's purse would increase by $15,000 (€13,800), meaning that both men's and women's champions would each receive $25,000 (€23,000).
King: 'Our work is far from done'
"Women's tennis is the leader in women's sports," King said during her speech. "But while we celebrate today, our work is far from done."
The work she is referring to was on show in the lead-up tournaments to this year's US Open. The Canadian Open offered a total prize pool of $9.4 million, of which only $2.8 million went to the women's draw. In comparison, the men pocketed $6.6 million despite players from both sexes playing the same amount of sets in the competition.
Since 2021, in even-numbered years, the men's tournament has been held in Montreal, while the women's competition is held in Toronto, and vice versa in odd-numbered years. Some argue that the revenue of the men's tournament brings more spectators through the gates and generates more TV money.
Inequality on show
Even some stars of the game, like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, bought into that narrative. "The stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches," said Djokovic at the 2016 Indian Wells Masters. "I think that's one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more."
Nadal made similar remarks at the 2019 Australian Open: "If they sell more tickets than what we sell tickets, they deserve more than us." Both have since backtracked, voicing their support for a union of the men's and women's governing bodies.
A week after the Canadian Open, the discrepancy in prize money was on show again at the Cincinnati Masters, even though the women's and men's draws took place at the same venue, meaning fans paid the same amount of money to watch men's and women's matches.
But yet again, the men's champion Djokovic took home around $1 million (€920,000) in prize money, while his female counterpart Coco Gauff had to settle for roughly $450,000 (€420,000) — less than half. Women's tennis might be making progress, but it is still very much playing catch-up.
Murray: WTA, ATP 'have to work together"
Former world No. 1 Andy Murray is one of the biggest advocates for equal pay in tennis. Confronted with the disparity in prize money before his first match in Cincinnati, Murray said the governing bodies of tennis — the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which manages the men's tour, and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which manages the women's — have to work together to find a solution.
"I always felt like when we're competing at the same event on the same courts, we should be playing for the same prize money," said the former Wimbledon champion. "It is difficult for it ever to become truly equal until the ATP and the WTA sort of actually combine and work together."
In a first step in that direction, the WTA announced in June that all combined 1000- and 500-level events, the sport's top competitions outside the Grand Slams, will offer equal prize money by 2027. The non-combined tournaments will do so by 2033.
If everything goes to plan, Billie Jean King will be 89 years old by the time prize money in professional tennis will be evenly distributed between men and women. Half a century after the tennis champion's activism won equal pay for women at the 1973 US Open, she still leads a fight for equity far from done.
Before leaving the stage on Tuesday, King finished her speech with a quote from American civil rights activist Coretta Scott King: "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it, and you win it in every generation."
Edited by: James Thorogood