September 20, 1973– The Battle Of The Sexes
55-year-old Bobby Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion. In the early 1970s, he began announcing to anyone willing to listen, that he could still win against any woman player. With great reluctance, Billie Jean King became the second woman who took him up on that challenge.
An exhibition match titled The Battle Of The Sexes was announced, and Riggs knew how to attract attention by throwing out a bunch of misogynistic comments to the press, including: “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot”. Yet, King trounced him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of more than 31,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome, at the time, the biggest audience ever to watch a tennis match. It remains one of the most famous tennis events of all time.
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, winning an extra $100,000 by betting on himself. He also won several U.S. championships, as an amateur and a professional.
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. Number One ranked, 31-year-old Margaret Court took Riggs up on his challenge for $10,000. On May 13, Riggs defeated Court 6-2, 6-1 in what was called The Mother’s Day Massacre. Court:
“I didn’t expect him to mix it up like that. We girls don’t play like that.”
Riggs turned his attention back to 29-year-old King, whom he called “The Women’s Libber Leader”. Riggs:
“I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates. We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.”
After much prodding, King changed her mind this time and agreed to a match. At a July press conference announcing the $100,000 winner-take-all match, Riggs boasted:
“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”. There was a media frenzy when Riggs promised to jump off a bridge if he lost. He continued to play up his male chauvinist rants, declaring:
“Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order. Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.”
Riggs had trained hard for his match with Court, but feeling cocky, he spent the summer of 1973 partying and making wise cracks. King continued with her normal routine on the women’s tour.
On September 20, fans filled the Houston Astrodome to watch The Battle Of The Sexes while 100 million people across the planet watched on television.Theme songs were chosen for the event: Conquest, Alfred Newman’s rousing theme from Captain From Castile (1947), a Tyrone Power film, for Riggs, and I Am Woman performed live by Helen Reddy was King’s choice. King was carried on to the court on a glittering gold-colored platform held aloft by toga-wearing members of the Rice University Men’s Track Team. Riggs made his entrance on a rickshaw surrounded by bikini clad women called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies”. King then presented Riggs with a squealing pink baby pig. Riggs handed King a giant Sugar Daddy candy bar.
Keeping it playful, King wore blue suede sneakers, and Riggs played three sets wearing a gold jacket with the “Sugar Daddy” logo on the back. King wore a little menthol-green and sky-blue nylon number by legendary British tennis couturier Ted Tinling. The dress’s color scheme payed subtle homage to the two-year-old Virginia Slims Women’s Tennis Tour, which had been selling poorly. Tinling delivered the dress in person.
King worked to wear Riggs down with her rallies. She won the first set 6-4. Riggs broke King’s serve in the first game of the second set, yet he still lost it 6-3. Visibly tiring, he then lost the third set 6-3. When he hit a high backhand volley into the net on match point, King flung her racket into the air in celebration. King:
“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.”
Howard Cosell delivered a colorful play-by-play commentary, and heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman presented the trophy and the check to King.
Riggs told reporters that King simply “played too well”. Known for having a gambling problem, rumors surfaced that Riggs threw the match for money to pay off his gambling debts.
The Battle Of The Sexes made King the first American female superstar athlete. King landed endorsements for Adidas, Wilson Tennis Rackets, Colgate Toothpaste and Sunbeam Blow Dryers. In 1974, King made more than one million dollars.
King retired from competitive singles tennis in 1983, after winning 12 major titles, including six Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens. She founded a women’s players union, a women’s sports magazine, a nonprofit advocacy group for female athletes and a new team tennis league. Yet, she will always be remembered for The Battle Of The Sexes. King:
“I know that when I die, nobody at my funeral will be talking about me. They’ll all just be standing around telling each other where they were the night I beat Bobby Riggs.”
King met her Larry King, now a lawyer, when they were in college. The couple married in 1965. By 1968, King realized that she was attracted to women, and in 1971, she began an affair with with her assistant, Marilyn Barnett. King came clean about the relationship when, in May 1981, it became public that a palimony lawsuit had been filed by Barnett, making King the first prominent professional female athlete to come out of the closet. King said that she had wanted to retire from competitive tennis in 1981 but could not afford to because of the lawsuit. King:
“Within 24 hours of the lawsuit being filed, I lost all my endorsements; I lost everything. I lost $2 million at least, because I had longtime contracts. I had to play just to pay for the lawyers. In three months, I went through $500,000. I was in shock. I didn’t make $2 million in my lifetime, so it’s all relative to what you make.”
King’s victory, along with the 1972 passage of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, that addresses discrimination on the basis of sex, is credited with bringing a lot of fans to women’s sports.
In 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work for Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights.
Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988. He founded the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum to raise money for cancer research and house his papers and trophies. Riggs left this world in 1995, he was 77-years-old when he was taken by the cancer. In his final days, Riggs reached out to King, and King talked to him often on the telephone. She called him shortly before his death, offering to visit him, but he did not want her to see him so sick. She talked to him the night before his death, and the last thing she told Riggs was “I love you”.
Margaret Court is now an Evangelical Christian minister in her native Australia. She has spoken out against Marriage Equality in her country. Court:
“They want marriage because they want to destroy it. There will be no Mother’s Day, there will be no Father’s Day, there will be no Easter, there will be no Christmas.”
In 2007, some grifter real estate developer from Queens with weird hair attempted to put together a new Battle Of The Sexes with a one million dollar prize, pitting Serena Williams against John McEnroe. It never really got off the ground because everyone involved new that guy was a loser. I wonder what became of him?
The Battle Of The Sexes (2013) is an excellent documentary Directed by James Erskine and Zara Hayes. There are two feature films about the famous rivalry: the 2001 movie for television When Billie Beat Bobby with Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, and in 2017 there was The Battle Of The Sexes with Emma Stone and Steve Carell.