Michelle Obama Honors Billie Jean King During Surprise Speech at US Open: 'Speak Out and Fight'

The former first lady paid tribute to the tennis icon, who has been on the forefront of the fight for equal pay in tournaments

Michelle Obama paid tribute to tennis icon Billie Jean King in a speech at the US Open as she attended with former President Barack Obama in New York City on Monday night.

The former first lady honored King, 79, on the opening night of the tennis championship for the latter's historical achievement in fighting for equal pay for women in tennis on the 50th anniversary of equal prize money at the US Open.

“Billie Jean teaches us that when things lie in the balance, we all have a choice to make,” Michelle, 59, said in a clip obtained by Sky Sports in her tribute, which took place following Coco Gauff's winning match against German player Laura Siegemund.

“We can either wait around and accept what we’re given. We can sit silently and hope someone else fights our battles. Or we can make our own stand,” Michelle continued. “We can use whatever platforms we have to speak out and fight to protect the progress we’ve made, and level the playing field for all of our daughters and their daughters.”

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<p>CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock</p> Michelle Obama at the US Open in New York City on Aug. 28, 2023


Michelle Obama at the US Open in New York City on Aug. 28, 2023

Related: Billie Jean King Will Never Stop Advocating for Equality and Inclusivity in Sports: 'We Need More'

In 1973, King beat top 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.

King had threatened not to play again a year prior, after she won the US Open and received $10,000 — $15,000 less than if a man won the same title. 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 followed suit in paying men and women players equally. (This year, US Open winners will each receive a payment of $3 million.)

“Even today, there are far too many tournaments out there that still need to give equal pay to women,” Michelle continued in her speech Monday. “Let us remember all of this is far bigger than a champion’s paycheck — this is about how women are seen and valued in this world.”

“Sadly, we have seen how quickly progress like this can be taken away if we are not mindful and vigilant,” she added.

<p>CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock</p> Billie Jean King at the US Open in New York City on Aug. 28, 2023


Billie Jean King at the US Open in New York City on Aug. 28, 2023

Related: U.S. Women's Soccer Team to Receive Pay Equal to Men's in Historic Deal: 'Extreme Pride'

King got up onstage following the former first lady’s tribute to share some wisdom to the players watching on in the Arthur Ashe Stadium arena.

“While we celebrate today, our work is far from done,” the sports legend said in her own speech, per ABC News.

She then repeated a quote from Coretta Scott King: " 'Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation.' ”

Promising player in the tournament Gauff, 19, shared how she got to meet Michelle following her win at the US Open on Monday. The 2022 French Open runner-up recalled, per the Associated Press, that the Becoming author “said it’s good to speak up for myself.”

“I think she was happy that I spoke up for myself today,” Gauff continued, as she referred to her calling out her opponent Siegmund for taking extra time between points to the chair umpire.

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