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US tennis icon Billie Jean King to be awarded French Légion d'honneur

She spoke this week with French media about the difficulties of coming out in the 1980s, saying ‘I lost all my sponsors overnight’

Billie Jean King is to be honoured by France for her feats as a tennis player and for her work supporting the rights of women and the LGBT+ community Pic: Lev Radin, Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock

American tennis icon Billie Jean King will be awarded with the Légion d'honneur, the highest French order of merit, to mark her contributions to the sport and to women’s and LGBT+ rights. 

She will receive the award from President Emmanuel Macron in a ceremony at the Élysée Palace on Friday (June 3). 

She will also be honoured on Thursday in a ceremony at French tennis grand slam tournament Roland-Garros, 50 years on from her first and only title there, which came as a result of her victory over Evonne Goolagong in 1972. 

The ceremony will be in tribute to her stellar tennis career that spanned over 30 years and during which she won 12 grand slam singles titles, and also her actions off court in promoting women’s and LGBT+ rights. 

Ms King is one of the most successful female tennis players in history. She also had a huge hand in bringing on the women’s game, creating the Women’s Tennis Association, the first organisation to represent female players.

She was also involved in the famous tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973 that was deemed the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ (he had claimed he could beat any woman tennis player - and ended up in a match with Ms King). It was watched by around 90 million people across the world - and Ms King won.

A screening of the 2017 film on that match, also called Battle of the Sexes, will be shown on the Suzanne Lenglen court at Roland-Garros on Thursday following the semi-final match in the women’s singles draw. 

In 1981, at the age of 38, Ms King became the first prominent female athlete to come out as gay. 

She spoke about this moment on French TV show C à vous yesterday (May 31), saying it was “a very difficult time”. 

“I told the truth,” she said, adding that she lost all of her sponsors - the equivalent of $2million - overnight. 

“This would not happen today, of course. You can come out today, and you are congratulated; there is a president who shakes your hand,” she said. 

“It was a very difficult time and it took me a long time to recover emotionally. We’re talking about mental health all the time now, it’s good. Psychotherapy helped me, probably the most. Thank you to all the therapists out there.”

Roland-Garros is held in Paris and runs this year between May 16 and June 5. 

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