Person of the Week: Billie Jean King

Tennis great Billie Jean King succeeded as both a great athlete and a pioneer in sport. Now, the same tennis officials with whom she often battled while fighting for equality for women have paid her an extraordinary honor.

U.S. Open organizers renamed their venue the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday at the start of this year's championship. The decision came as a suprise to the star.

"I don't really understand it yet and I haven't had time to reflect. I really do hope it's a new beginning," King told ABC News.

She won four singles titles at the U.S. Open between 1967 and 1974, and said when she learned her name would grace the venue it felt like a "dream."

"I don't really get it to be honest," she said. "It's kind of overwhelming and I can't touch it really. It's a weird feeling; I don't know how to describe it yet really."

'My Destiny'

For Billie Jean King, the dream to become an athelete was something she devised before she was a teen.

She had her first tennis lesson at age 11, and was hooked.

"I knew I had found my destiny. I wanted to be the number one tennis player in the world," King said.

Six years later at age 17 she won the first of 20 titles at Wimbledon with a victory in the doubles championship.

King went on to become the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. But her greatest accomplishments may have been off the court, where she fought for equal prize money and equal status for women at tournaments.

Her determination created opportunities for girls and women in sports that went far beyond tennis.

"I was chosen to lead," King said. "Followers choose leaders, leaders don't choose followers."

Battle of the Sexes

A unique opportunity arrived that proved the perfect way for King to further shift the place of women in sports in 1973 when she was challenged to play a man -- tennis great Bobby Riggs.

The men sponsoring the event expected it would provide great theater. But she saw it as a crossroads in her battle for women's equality in sport and it became the most watched tennis event in history.

The event was covered by sportscaster Howard Cosell, yet she noted he focused on her appearance.

"If you look at Howard Cosell talking about me … he talked about my looks, he did not talk about my athletic accomplishments," King said. "That just kind of says it all."

When the match began, she knew that to influence social change she had to be victorious.

"I had to win … that is what I kept saying. This is life and death," King said.

And she did, further opening opportunities for girls in sports.

Yet some young female athletes now take these opportunities for granted.

We spoke with some to see what they knew about King and one young woman said, "I don't know much."

Another said, "She was a tennis player. I'm going to get the year wrong, the '80s maybe? A little bit later?"

King of course played in the 1970s, but said if girls don't know about her career, it's a good thing.

"They've always had the opportunity to get an athletic scholarship, they've always had an opportunity [to] play," King said. "Their frame of reference is very different."

Watching her walk around the Billie Jean King Tennis Center on Thursday, you got a sense of what an important figure she is. While athletes so often dwell on past victories and their glory days, this champ is looking forward.

"We have a long way to go … for girls and women in sports and that's what I want -- I want the dream to be equal," she said. "I want boys and girls to have equal opportunity."

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