Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King (née Moffitt) is one of the most influential figures in the history of women’s tennis. Born in Long Beach, California on November 22, 1943, King made her Grand Slam debut in the US National Championships – which would become the US Open, although the Open Era did not begin until 1968 – in 1959 at the age of 15. She lost to compatriot Justina Bricka in the first round on that occasion, despite holding a match point in the first set.

However, at the time of her retirement from competitive tennis in 1983, King had won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles – 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles – more than any other female player in history bar Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova. She turned professional at the start of the Open Era and, in 1971, became the first female athlete, of any description, to win over $100,000 in a single season.

King was particulary successful at Wimbledon, where she won 20 titles – a record she shares with Martina Navratilova – including six singles titles between 1966 and 1975. Indeed, she completed a so-called ‘career Grand Slam’ in women’s singles and mixed doubles and won women’s doubles titles at Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open. She also won the Federation Cup, which was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup in 2020, seven times and the Wightman Cup nine times.

A pioneer for gender equality, social justice, including LGBTQ+ rights, King was instrumental in the foundation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), thereby uniting women’s professional tennis into a single tour. Nowadays, the WTA Tour consists of over 50 events worldwide. King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990 and, in 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center was renamed in her honour.

Charlotte Dujardin

Enfield-born dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin, 36, has the distinction of being the second most successful British female Olympian in history. At the 2020 Summer Olympics – which were, of course, postponed until 2021 – she won bronze in team and individual dressage aboard Gio, whom she co-owned, at the Baji Koen Equestrian Park in Tokyo to take her medal tally to six. Cyclist Dame Laura Kenny has also won six Olympic medals, but has two more golds than Dujardin.

Dujardin joined international dressage rider and trainer Judy Harvey straight from school and, in 2007, almost by accident, formed a partnership with five-time Olympian Carl Hester at his yard near Newent, Gloucestershire. Hester became her mentor, giving her the ride on Valegro, the horse aboard whom she would enjoy her finest hour at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. At Greenwich Park, Dujardin, alongside Hester and Laura Tomlinson (née Bechtolsheimer), won gold in team dressage and, two days later, won gold again in individual dressage.

Dujardin and Valegro continued to prosper, winning individual gold medals at the European Dressage Championships in 2013 and 2014, gold medals in both Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Freestyle at the World Equestrian Games in 2014 and the World Cup Dressage Final in 2014 and 2015. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the pair defended their individual dressage title and won silver in team dressage.

Valegro was retired from competition in December, 2016, following an emotional farewell performance at the London International Horse Show at Olympia. Dujardin, for her part, was awarded an OBE for services to equestrianism in 2013 and was further honoured with a CBE in 2017.

Fatima Whitbread

Born Fatima Vedad in Stoke Newington, North East London on March 3, 1961, Fatima Whitbread endured what she described as a ‘nightmare of a childhood’ before being adopted by her javelin coach, Margaret Whitbread, and her husband as a teenager. In 1977, Whitbread won the intermediate, or under 17, age group at the English Schools Athletic Association Championships with a throw of 43.52 metres. She subsequently represented England at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, where she finished sixth behind compatriot Theresa ‘Tessa’ Sanderson – the rivalry between the two would become legendary – with a throw of 49.16 metres.

Whitbread competed at the first of three Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California in 1984, winning the bronze medal behind Sanderson and Tiina Lillak of Finland. However, she is probably best remembered for her achievements between 1986 and her formal retirement from competition in 1992. At the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, she won the gold medal with a throw of 76.32 metres in the final, by which time she had already set a new world record of 77.44 metres – 2.04 metres further than the previous mark, set by East German Petra Felke in 1985 – in the qualifying round. In so doing, she became the first British athlete, male or female, to hold a world record in a throwing event.

At the 1987 World Athletics Championhsips, Whitbread won gold again, with a throw of 76.64 metres. That year she was created a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to athletics and voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Whitbread won the silver medal behind Felke but, thereafter, he career was dogged by a long-term shoulder injury, which eventually forced her retirement.

Katie Taylor

Not to be confused with American former figure skater Katy Taylor, Katie ‘The Bray Bomber’ Taylor is an Irish professional boxer who, at the time of writing, has the distinction of being undisputed world lightweight champion. Born in Bray, County Wicklow, hence her nickname, but based in Connecticut in the United States, Taylor, 35, currently defends a perfect 21-0 record, including six knockouts, since making her professional debut in November, 2016. Most recently, she outpointed Puerta Rican Amanda Serrano, by split decision, at Madison Square Garden, New York on April 30, 2022 to retain her WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles. Taylor remains one of just eight boxers, of either sex, to have held all four major world titles at the same time.

Taylor was also a prolific winner as an amateur. She made her debut against Northern Irishwoman Alanna Nihell (née Audley-Murphy) at the National Stadium, Dublin, in what was, in fact, the first officially sanctioned women’s boxing match on Irish soil, on October 31, 2001, winning on points. In her amateur boxing career as a a whole, Taylor compiled a record of 175-12-1, with highlights including six gold medals at the European Amateur Boxing Championships, five gold medals at the European Union Amateur Boxing Championships and another five at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which included women’s boxing for the first time, Taylor defeated Russian Sofya Ochigava 10-8 in the gold medal match to become the inaugural Olympic women’s lightweight champion.

In May, 2022, she was honoured by the IBA with the accolade of ‘Outstanding Boxer’ for her role in promoting women’s boxing. Although yet to be confirmed, at the time of writing, Taylor is set to make her home professional debut, in a rematch with Amanda Serrano, at Croke Park, Dublin in October, 2022.

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