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Queens declares ‘Billie Jean King Day’ as U.S. Open honors her

The 2023 U.S. Open continues to serve as a celebration of Billie Jean King.

Five decades ago, the tennis great delivered an essential win for equality when she said she and her fellow female players wouldn’t compete at the annual tournament in Queens if their prize money didn’t match the men’s. Her crusade resulted in the U.S. Open becoming the first event to offer equal payouts.

Michelle Obama highlighted the feat’s 50th anniversary during a celebration Monday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. And moments before King was to be honored Tuesday for her support of a different cause — free tennis programs for New York City youth — she received another surprise honor.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. declared Tuesday to be “Billie Jean King Day” in Queens, which is home to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that hosts the U.S. Open.

“The tennis center is in Queens so this is even more special,” King said after receiving the honor. “I don’t live in Queens, I live in the Upper West Side, but I’m a New Yorker.”

Richards made the proclamation at the tennis center during the 25th edition of King’s City Parks Foundation Tennis Benefit, which raises money for free youth tennis lessons at New York City parks.

It was King’s idea in 1998 to host the annual fundraiser at the U.S. Open to support youth tennis programs rather than relying on the city to do so, said the event’s co-founder, Mike Silverman. The event has taken place at the U.S. Open every year since through a partnership with the United States Tennis Association.

“It’s so important to have free access to tennis,” King said Tuesday. “If I hadn’t had free access in Long Beach, California, growing up, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

King’s passion for equality, both on the professional level and in creating opportunities for kids, has frequently led to change. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association, which governs the women’s professional tour, in 1973 — the same year she beat Bobby Riggs in the iconic “Battle of the Sexes” match. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit supporting women in sports, the following year.

“She’s a pioneer. No matter what she does, I always feel like she has a greater purpose,” Silverman, the City Parks Foundation’s director, told the Daily News. “She wants impact and she wants to make a big difference. And she can. And she has. … What we’re doing, and what she’s doing through us, is giving every kid in New York an equal chance to learn to play tennis.”

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This year’s benefit raised $500,000, which came from ticket sales and donations, organizers said. The event has raised more than $6 million since its creation to provide opportunities for youth tennis players between six and 17 years old.

Tuesday’s event also honored 23-year-old Samantha Chui, who grew up playing tennis at Queen’s Cunningham Park after joining the program at age seven. She became a tennis coach for the City Parks Foundation at age 17 and recently completed her sixth summer in the role.

“[King] has changed the world that I get to live in, and to be there alongside her as the next generation is fantastic,” Chui told The News.

Tuesday’s benefit took place about 24 hours after the former first lady Obama spoke about the lasting impact of King’s fight for pay equity in 1973.

Former first lady of the United States Michelle Obama attended and spoke at a ceremony honoring 50 years of equal pay at the 2023 U.S. Open tennis championships inside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing New York on August 28, 2023.

“Let us remember, all of this is far bigger than a champions paycheck,” Obama told the U.S. Open crowd. “This is about how women are seen and valued in this world. We have seen how quickly progress like this can be taken away if we are not mindful and vigilant, if we do not keep remembering and advocating and organizing and speaking out and, yes, voting.”

King won 13 titles at the U.S. Open, including singles championships in 1967, 1971, 1972 and 1974. But it’s her accomplishment at the 1973 tournament that continues to inspire celebration.

“It’s the 50th anniversary,” said Heather Lubov, the City Parks Foundation’s executive director. “It’s the 25th of this benefit. It seemed like the perfect year [to honor her].”

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