King is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of her historic Battle of the Sexes win this year
Greatness recognizes greatness.
On the 50th anniversary of equal pay at the US Open, Billie Jean King says watching Coco Gauff win the 2023 US Open is "the reason" she and other women athletes advocated for equal compensation in 1973.
"Coco winning was just fantastic," King, 79, tells PEOPLE. "When I see her, she's the reason we fought so hard 50 years ago."
King says Gauff, 19, is "going to be really fantastic for our sport" as the American tennis star continues to dominate, and praises the young athlete for her "strong mind" and "exciting" style of play, as well as her own advocacy for "social justice."
"I think she's such a force," says King, adding that Gauff is an inspiring role model for girls "because of her background and care for social justice."
King explains, "It comes from her grandmother. Her grandmother was the first Black child to go to an all-white school in Delray," referring to Yvonne Lee Odom, Gauff's grandmother who, according to Palm Beach Post, was the first student to integrate to a school in southern Palm Beach County in 1961.
"To hear her story, if you're a granddaughter and you're hearing your grandmother talk about going to a white school, being the only Black child, I think she's such a force," says King. "But I want her to be happy, number one. She's really exciting to watch and a great athlete."
In 1973, King beat top men's tennis player in the world Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match and received $25,000 for her win — the same amount paid to a man winning the title for the first time in a career-defining moment.
A year earlier, King had threatened not to play again after she won the US Open and received just $10,000 — $15,000 less than what the men's winner was awarded. She rallied women players along with her to fight for equal pay and the following year, the US Open agreed to pay women the same as men in tournaments, becoming the first sporting event to do so.
After 34 years, all Grand Slam events have eventually followed suit in paying men and women players equally. (This year, US Open winners will each receive a payment of $3 million.)
And 50 years later, King says, "Sometimes it feels so long ago, and other times it feels like today," about the half-century since her historic victory.
Looking back, "it was really, really difficult to be heard," says King. "In 1973, Title IX had just been passed the year before where the educational amendment, we finally weren't going to have classroom quotas for women anymore."
She adds, "With women's sports particularly, they paid a lot of attention to that match because there was a guy involved. If you got a guy involved, you got a lot more attention. I still think that holds true today to a certain degree, but not to the extent it was back then."
On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of King's iconic Battle of the Sexes victory and just under two weeks after the 50th anniversary of equal pay at the US Open, PEOPLE and e.l.f. will celebrate King with a special Women Changing the Game event and drone show, which will be streamed on e.l.f.'s TikTok and Instagram channels.
In 2023, King says American tennis is "in the best place we've ever been," adding, "We have tons of women, and the men are doing great now too."
King was honored by former First Lady Michelle Obama following Gauff's win at the US Open, which "meant so much" to former tennis star King. "She's always been so warm, and kind, and just good, and also very strong. She really believes in how much she wants to help women and girls and whether it be through nutrition or exercise or education," says King.
Celebrating the anniversary so many years later, King is "honored" that her work has "touched so many lives" and "inspired self-confidence" in so many women. "I know that Riggs match touched people's hearts and minds because every single day since that match someone's brought it up," says King.
"It gave women self-confidence to ask for what they want and need because we're taught not to. They ask for raises. I've had so many women tell me how it changed their lives or their grandmother's life or whoever; just the different generations it's covered. I still do interviews for 10 year-olds that bring it up in their reports for school."
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To celebrate the milestone anniversary, e.l.f. is donating $50,000 to King's Women's Sports Foundation.
King tells PEOPLE, "e.l.f has been so good to us," as donors and as allies for women's sports. "It's all about leadership. So it means a lot to us they donated, and we'll make sure that we don't waste one ounce of that money," adding that her foundation is "very big" on being transparent with donations.
"A lot of people just take the money and you never hear from them and you don't know what happens. I think it's really important because I also founded the Women's Sports Foundation in 1974, so it'll be our 50th anniversary next year. Another 5-0, baby."
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