History In The Headlines

Billie Jean King Wins the ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ 40 Years Ago

By Jesse Greenspan
On September 20, 1973, women’s tennis star Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” The 55-year-old Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion, believed he could still beat any woman player, and, after much prodding, King eventually took him up on the challenge. Riggs hyped the contest with a slew of misogynistic comments, including that “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.” Yet King ended up eviscerating him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of more than 30,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome, then the largest crowd ever to watch a tennis match. King’s victory—along with the passage of Title IX, an anti-gender-discrimination law—is often credited with sparking a boom in women’s sports.
Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King face off on September 20, 1973. (Credit: Getty Images)

Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King face off on September 20, 1973. (Credit: Getty Images)

Despite losing much of his prime to World War II, Riggs was once considered the best tennis player in the world. In 1939 he won the men’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon, purportedly collecting over $100,000 in the process by betting on himself. He also won a few U.S. championships, both as an amateur and a professional. Craving a return to the spotlight, Riggs decided in early 1973 to challenge some of tennis’ top women players. King, who at that point had already won 10 major singles titles, repeatedly turned him down. But then-No. 1-ranked Margaret Court took the bait in return for a $10,000 payday. On May 13, Riggs used a variety of lobs, drop shots and spin shots to defeat Court 6-2, 6-1 in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” “I didn’t expect him to mix it up like that,” Court told reporters afterward. “We girls don’t play like that.”

Riggs immediately turned his sights back on the 29-year-old King, whom he called the “women’s libber leader.” “I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates,” Riggs said. “We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.” This time around, King agreed. At a July press conference announcing the $100,000 winner-take-all match (plus at least $75,000 each in ancillary money), Riggs said, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” King responded by calling him a “creep.” A media blitz then ensued in which Riggs promised to jump off a bridge if he lost. He also resumed his male chauvinist rants, declaring on one occasion, “women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” Another time, he said, “Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.” In contrast to the extensive training he did before the Court match, Riggs reportedly spent most of the summer partying and schmoozing. King, on the other hand, continued with her normal routine on the women’s tour.

On September 20, 30,492 fans squeezed into the Houston Astrodome to witness the so-called “Battle of the Sexes,” while an estimated 90 million people worldwide watched on television. King entered the court a la Cleopatra, riding in a gold litter held aloft by toga-wearing members of the Rice University men’s track team. Riggs, meanwhile, came in on a rickshaw surrounded by scantily clad women known as “Bobby’s bosom buddies.” King then presented Riggs with a squealing baby pig and in return received a large “Sugar Daddy” lollipop. In keeping with the carnival-like atmosphere of the contest, King wore blue suede sneakers, and Riggs played the first three games wearing a yellow jacket with the “Sugar Daddy” logo on the back.

Normally a serve-and-volley player, King made a conscious effort to wear Riggs down with baseline rallies. She won the first set 6-4, striking a number of winners and securing the final point on a Riggs double fault. Though Riggs broke King’s serve in the first game of the second set, he would go on to lose it 6-3. Visibly tiring, he then lost the third set 6-3 as well. When he hit a high backhand volley into the net on match point, King flung her racket into the air in celebration. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said later. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” For his part, Riggs told reporters that King simply “played too well.” The two eventually became friends, and even spoke a few days before Riggs died of prostate cancer in 1995.

Over the years, rumors surfaced that Riggs threw the match for money. Just last month, a former assistant golf pro in Florida told ESPN that he had overheard two mob bosses discussing Riggs’ proposal to lose intentionally. In return, Riggs allegedly had $100,000 in gambling debts wiped clean. Riggs himself never admitted to this, nor did the executor of his estate. Moreover, a mafia lawyer accused by the former assistant golf pro of arranging the fix didn’t mention it in his tell-all book, even as he took credit for, among other things, playing an indirect role in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “That was not really in Bobby’s interest in any way to lose that match,” King told ESPN.

Either way, the “Battle of the Sexes” turned King into arguably the first superstar female athlete in the United States. After receiving her $100,000 check from boxer George Foreman, one of the many celebrities on hand at the Astrodome, King landed a string of endorsements for such products as Adidas sneakers, Wilson tennis rackets, Colgate toothpaste and Sunbeam hair curlers. The following year, her income reportedly neared $1 million. King retired from competitive singles tennis in 1983, having won 12 major titles, including six Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens. She also helped found a women’s players union, a women’s sports magazine, a nonprofit advocacy group for female athletes and a team tennis league. Yet she still remains best known for a single victory. “I know that when I die, nobody at my funeral will be talking about me,” she once said. “They’ll all just be standing around telling each other where they were the night I beat Bobby Riggs.”

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Categories: Sports, Tennis, Women's History