Billy Jean King and The Battle of the Sexes
"Battle of the Sexes" was most famously used for an internationally televised tennis match in 1973 held at the Houston Astrodome between 55 year-old Bobby Riggs and 29 year-old Billie Jean King, which King won in three sets. The match was viewed by an estimated fifty million people in the United States and ninety million worldwide. King's win is considered a milestone in public acceptance of women's tennis.
Riggs had been one of the world's top tennis players in the 1940s; he was ranked year-end World No. 1 three times and had won six major titles during his career. After he retired from professional tennis in 1951, Riggs remained a master promoter of himself and of tennis. In 1973, he opined that the female game was inferior and that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.
Riggs first challenged Billie Jean King, but when she declined, Margaret Court stepped in. At the time, Court was 30 years old and in the midst of earning her seventh year-end ranking as World No. 1 female player in the world. On the day of their match on May 13, 5,000 fans came to the Mother's Day match in Ramona, California. Televised by CBS Sports, Riggs descended the stadium steps and presented Court with Mother's Day flowers, which she accepted while curtsying. Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep Court off balance. His quick victory (6–2, 6–1) landed Riggs on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time.
Suddenly in the national limelight following his win over Court, Riggs taunted all female tennis players, prompting King to accept a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs in a nationally televised match in prime time on ABC that the promoters dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes". The match, which had a winner-take-all prize of $100,000 ($576,000 today), was held in Texas at the Houston Astrodome on Thursday, September 20, 1973. Then 29-year-old King had earned her fifth year-end ranking as World No. 1 female player the previous year, and would finish second to Court in 1973.
King entered the court in the style of Cleopatra, on a feather-adorned litter carried by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the style of ancient slaves. Riggs followed in a rickshaw drawn by a bevy of models. Riggs presented King with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop, and she responded by giving him a squealing piglet, symbolic of male chauvinism. Riggs was given $50,000 ($288,000 today) to wear a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket during the match, which he took off after three games. Riggs also placed many bets on and invested a lot of money in the match.
King, who also competed in the Virginia Slims of Houston during the same week, won in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. In the first set, she fell behind 3–2 when Riggs broke her serve. In a 2015 interview, she said that most people do not remember that she was initially behind in the first set, and it looked bad for her in the early going. At this point, King realized that she "had to win" given the importance of the match, and broke right back and again in the tenth game to close out the set. She had learned from Court's loss and was ready for Riggs's game. Rather than playing her own usual aggressive game, King mostly stayed at the baseline, easily handling Riggs's lobs and soft shots, making him cover the entire court as she ran him from side to side and beat him at his own defensive style of play. After quickly failing from the baseline, where he had intended to play, Riggs dropped his comedic effect and showed a more serious demeanor, as he was forced to change to a serve-and-volley game. Here is original footage of the match:
A few critics were less than impressed by King's victory; she was 26 years younger, and some experts claimed that it was more an age versus youth game. According to Jack Kramer, "I don't think Billie Jean played all that well. She hit a lot of short balls which Bobby could have taken advantage of had he been in shape. I would never take anything away from Billie Jean—because she was smart enough to prepare herself properly—but it might have been different if Riggs hadn't kept running around.
The match had an audience of an estimated 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide. The attendance in the Houston Astrodome was 30,472; as of 2012, it remains the largest audience to see a tennis match in the United States. Here is an ABC News 40 years later an interview with Billy Jean King looking back at the match and it's influence:
There was widespread speculation that Riggs had deliberately lost the match, based on his unusually poor play and large number of unforced errors, in order to win large sums of money that he had bet against himself as a way to pay off his gambling debts. On August 25, 2013, ESPN's Outside the Lines featured a man who had been silent for 40 years. The man said that he heard several members of the Mafia talking about Riggs throwing the match in exchange for cancelling his gambling debt to the mob. However, the article says that Riggs' close friend and estate executor Lornie Kuhle vehemently denied that he was ever in debt to the mob or received a payoff from them. The article also quotes Riggs' son, who claims that his father felt that he had made a terrible mistake and was depressed for six months following the match. Riggs wanted a rematch but King did not. He considered suing her, as a rematch had been part of the contract.
King viewed the match as more than a publicity stunt, feeling that beating Riggs was important both for women's tennis and for the women's liberation movement as a whole. She said later, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem." She believed that she had a destiny to work for sexual equality in sports. Billie Jean was part of the Original 9, which formed the Virginia Slims Series, created because the women wanted to end inequality of pay between male and female victors. These nine women created their own tournaments and played wherever they could. Eventually this turned into the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
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