Sunday, October 1, 2023

Angela Smith and Billie Jean King, two sporting legends who have opened so many doors for female athletes

‘Meeting BJK twice in New York was such an inspiration and she continues to be one as she nears 80’
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)

Watching the brilliant interview with Billie Jean King conducted by the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan on Wednesday evening, it was impossible not to compare the enormous strides made by women in tennis with some of the lamentable double standards that still apply in squash.

As the programme revealed the battles that King has fought for the past half-century on behalf of female tennis players, and women athletes worldwide, I wondered if Angela Smith, who was responsible for launching the women’s professional squash tour, was also glued to her TV set.

I messaged Angela to see if she was watching. Of course she was.

After the programme she texted me to say: “Had 4 messages tonight following the BJK programme comparing what I did in squash to what she did. I was extremely flattered.”

Only four? Angela’s phone should have been red hot with grateful missives from the hundreds of female professionals who have followed in her footsteps since she fought the establishment to get a better deal for women players.

While Jonah Barrington is rightly praised for bringing together a group of players to launch the fledgling men’s professional circuit, Angela’s efforts to do the same for the women has not received the same recognition or respect.

Angela wrote about her struggles to launch the women’s pro tour here on Squash Mad and Nicky Horn’s recent article about the casual sexism in squash highlighted many of the problems that still exist in the game today.

Angela clearly finds Billie Jean King a massive inspiration and was delighted to meet her a couple of times while she was based in New York many years ago.

Angela Smith in action against Aussie rival Vicki Cardwell

Angela said: “Both meetings were at the Forest Hills Tennis Club, between 1979 and 1981 as I recall. I was with the sister-in-law of top tennis player Stan Smith (she was an excellent squash player) and we were chatting away when Stan and BJK came along. We got talking and she was interested in how we were promoting ourselves in the world of squash.

“I was working in NYC then and we had a long chat about participation in all sports for women. She was fighting discrimination of all kinds. She offered me some advice on how we should continually be improving and fighting to promote the sport and women in general. I never forgot her passion and enthusiasm.

“Title IX had been instituted some eight years earlier and we had no idea how radically that would change the landscape for participation in sports and in education.

“Some 50 years on there is no doubt that it has changed the lives of millions, but we still have so much to do.

“That meeting reaffirmed to me that I was right in my decision to start a professional circuit for women players. ‘Never give in, go with your gut,’ she said.

“The Virginia Slims tennis slogan was ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’

“Well, we have come a long way in women’s sport, but we must continue to adapt and change and make the sport fit into the modern world.

West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, where Angela Smith met Billie Jean King

“BJK is coming up to 80, as competitive as ever if that BBC documentary is anything to go by. She will continue to fight for every female, whether they are white, women of colour, or those with disabilities, and we as squash players should do the same and ensure that the landscape for participation is open for all in our sport, not just the privileged few.

“Those governing bodies, people of influence and current players should get around the table and ensure the pathways exist for future players to enjoy the sport and those playing now having ways to transition after playing, whether that be staying in the sport by coaching or through other routes or moving into other areas.

“It is so easy to fall behind in sport if you take your eye off the ball and before you know it, there’s a mountain to climb. I feel we may be reaching that point.”

The day after the BBC interview with BJK was broadcast, it was the 50th anniversary of Title IX being adopted in America, which includes the following phrase now enshrined in law: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

America’s squash No.1 Amanda Sobhy reposted the Tweet from the Philadelphia Inquirer and featured in a series of video interviews published by the newspaper.

Amanda Sobhy on Twitter

This is the law that Billie Jean King fought for.

Angela shares the same pioneering spirit, laced with anger at the way many of her generation and those who followed have been treated by various squash hierarchies.

She revealed that Amanda Sobhy recently reached out to her and she was pleased to pass on some historic details about the formation of the women’s pro tour.

Angela added: “I was very pleased that Amanda made contact. We have had some interesting chats and I have sent her my best wishes ahead of her matches this week in Cairo.

“She is a great character, full of energy and personality, and she is attracting some excellent media coverage, which is good for the game. It’s good to see the American girls doing so well and they are obviously excellent role models, hopefully encouraging more girls to take up the sport.

“We need more of that in the promotion of the sport worldwide.”

This week the IOC discussed the issue of gender imbalance in so many international sporting federations and I know that Angela and several former players, all England internationals, are keen to meet up with WSF president Zena Wooldridge to discuss a variety of issues.

Angela added: “Indeed, that applies to any governing body that has a responsibility for squash and is open to look at ways to modernise the game.”

Hopefully, the doors that Billie Jean King and Angela Smith have been banging on for years will continue to open.

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Pictures courtesy of BBC and Squash Mad archive 


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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant article Angela – thank you for highlighting the work of BJK and thank you for your work. Title XI is another really powerful piece. Its so important that we move squash forward – for everyone irrelevant of gender and colour and ability. Females are so good at squash – lets help them become as recognised as males.

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