Former US tennis star and equal rights advocate Billie Jean King laughs before she is awarded with the Legion d'Honneur, France's chief honour, by French President Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France. Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: American former world number one Billie Jean King was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civilian award.

The multiple major winner was presented the award at the Elysee Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron, 50 years after her 1972 singles triumph at Roland Garros.

King, 78, was also honoured at the French Open on Thursday, a day before the award ceremony in Paris in recognition of her fight for women’s sport, and gender equality in sport.

“I am prouder of what I have done off-court than as an athlete, even though my tennis career was not so bad, was it?” King said.

Gender equality

“I guess being the world’s number one and winning Grand Slam tournaments, including Roland Garros, is quite an achievement. But I am prouder to have fought for gender equality. Tennis would be my platform and, if I could become the world’s best player, it would be better to have my voice heard. I knew that, as a woman, it would be much harder, but it would be even harder for my coloured-skin peers. I had the opportunity to make the world a slightly better place.

“It was a revelation - since then, it has guided my life and I have never changed course.”

Two years before her triumph at Roland Garros, King signed a $1 contract along with eight other women players and joined the breakaway Virginia Slims Circuit, which led to the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 with King as its first president.

She lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open, leading to the tournament becoming the first tennis major to offer equal prize money to both sexes in 1973.