In front of the largest television audience ever to watch a tennis match, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a contest billed as the "Battle of the Sexes." King's win was a hallmark victory not only for women's athletics but for the equal treatment of women everywhere.
In 1973, Bobby Riggs was 55 years old. In a sport where thirty was considered over the hill, Riggs was downright ancient. In his heyday, he was considered one of the best male tennis players of his time. Though he hadn't competed professionally in decades, Riggs was a notorious hustler who used tennis exhibitions to gamble himself some revenue. He placed wages on himself with gimmicks such as using a frying pan instead of a tennis racquet and typically finished with a profit.
The American feminist movement was alive and well in 1973. Title IX of the Education Amendments, which guaranteed women equal pay on the basis of gender, was not even a year old. Billie Jean King, one of the top female tennis players in the world, founded the Women's Tennis Association, which gave the opposite sex the chance to make a living playing professional tennis.
Riggs noticed the publicity being generated from the women's liberation movement and attempted to capitalize on it. He came out of retirement and challenged Billie Jean King to a three-set match in spring of that year. But King refused, citing that it did nothing for women's tennis, and Bobby was forced to look elsewhere.
With the enticement of a $10,000 paycheck, Riggs convinced Margaret Court to face him on Mother's Day of that year. Court was the top ranked woman on the planet, however she was not a fighter for women's equal rights. She undervalued the importance of the match and didn't practice until a week before; Riggs on the other hand trained relentlessly and ran a mile a day to get himself in shape.
When the two finally met on May 13th, the match was over in under an hour. Riggs was the aggressor and dominated the contest: 6-2, 6-1. In tennis circles, the match is referred to as the "Mother's Day Massacre."
"Now I want King bad. I'll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates," Riggs boasted after the match. "We got to keep this sex thing going. I'm a woman specialist now."
Riggs' victory placed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. In order to salvage the respect of women's tennis, which had suffered greatly from Court's defeat to a 55 year-old has-been, King at last agreed to play Riggs.
The hype ballooned in the weeks and months leading up to their nationally televised encounter. Riggs played the part of the chauvinistic male to a t. He wore a shirt baring the acronym WORMS - the World Organization for the Retention of Male Supremacy, while regurgitating any misogynistic line he could muster. "Women play about 25 percent as good as men." "Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order." "Women who can, do. Those who can't become feminists."
Billie Jean understood what losing to Riggs would mean. "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."
On September 20, 1973, King and Riggs entered the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,472 spectators and 48 million TV viewers. It was as unique an introduction to a sporting event as there's ever been. King was lifted onto the court in an Egyptian litter hauled by four shirtless men; Riggs entered in a rickshaw carried by six showgirls. The two competitors exchanged gifts prior to the match: King received a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop, while Riggs was given a live baby pig.
Although the Vegas odds makers had Riggs as an 8-5 favorite, King crushed Riggs in straight sets. The 27 year-old King lobbed the ball out of reach and made her male opponent do all the running. Billie Jean won after three dominating rounds, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and captured the hearts of women who had never even watched tennis.
"Billie Jean was too good, too aggressive," Riggs said at a press conference. "I said a lot of things about which I was wrong. Now I have to sit back and take what's coming and I will. I still like women in the bedrooms and kitchens in that order, but some of them can do other things. I know now."
King continued to play professionally for another ten years before retiring. She continued to promote the game of the tennis and fight for equal treatment in the workplace. Her creation, the WTA, remains the major league for women's tennis. Tennis is one of if not the only sport where the women's side gets just as much attention as the men's field, and King's victory over Riggs had something to do with that.
Riggs and King became friends off the court after the Battle of the Sexes. In 1995, Riggs talked to King only a few days before he died of prostate cancer. "One of the last things he said to me was, 'We really made a difference, didn't we?'" King recalled. "He understood the significance."
Tennis's Other 'Battle of the Sexes,' Before King-Riggs [New York Times]