Tennis, especially women’s tennis, has come a long way over the past 50 years. This is thanks to a player, who, at age 11, vowed to change the sport. That player is Billie Jean King, and the match she played in the summer of 1973 has since been called both “The Match of the Century” and “The Battle of the Sexes.” This is the story of an athlete and the tennis match that changed the sport of tennis forever.
As a non-contact combat sport, tennis stands apart as an athletic activity. In tennis, two people duel against each other, often for hours, in a strategic battle of wits and physical prowess using oblong rackets and one green, fuzzy ball.
There are more than 60 million people who play tennis worldwide, making it one of the most popular individual sports. Tennis has also been revered globally for another reason entirely: gender equality. In an athletic world that still suffers from disparity, women’s tennis is hailed as a victory for gender equality. The four Grand Slam tournaments that are the backbone of the professional tennis tour now give equal prize money to men and women. Despite the progress, however, gender equality still remains an issue. After all, Wimbledon (one of the largest and most well-known of the Grand Slam tournaments) only started giving equal prizes to both genders in 2007 after an outcry by Venus Williams. None of this could have happened, however, without Billie Jean King.
The year was 1973, and it was match day underneath the Houston Astrodome. 33,742 people were seated in the stadium, while 90 million people watched on television. Everyone was calling the match the “Battle of the Sexes.” In tennis, the title “Battle of the Sexes” is given to an exhibition match between a man and a woman. Throughout history, there have only been about eight matches that have been granted this title. On September 20, 1973, however, the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was, and still is, the most promoted and renowned “Battle of the Sexes” in tennis history.
With a rendition of the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” playing in the background, Bobby Riggs, a male tennis star, was the first to make an entrance. He entered the court wearing a bright yellow and red-striped jacket with “Sugar Daddy” emblazoned on the back. He rode a rickshaw into the stadium surrounded by statuesque women (whom Riggs called his “bosom buddies”). Billie Jean King, the female player, followed closely behind, entering the court on the opposite side, lying on a Cleopatra-like litter bed carried by a pack of shirtless He-Men. The two opponents met at the net and exchanged words. Then, in an act of jest, they exchanged a gigantic Sugar Daddy lollipop the size of small child and a squealing piglet in a bowtie across the net. As Time Magazine’s 1973 article about the match stated, “Riggs was grim, nervous, almost ashen,” while “Billie Jean was stretched taut also, but it was the tension of a superior athlete fully confident of her capabilities.”
Bobby Riggs started his professional tennis career in 1939 as a 21-year-old amateur. Through a display of athletic dominance at Wimbledon, Riggs won men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles matches, collecting over $100,000 in prize money by betting on himself. Shortly after, Riggs was the finalist at the U.S. National Championships (now known as the U.S. Open) and the runner-up at the French Championships (the precursor to the French Open). In 1941, Riggs played his first professional tennis match, but his career and fame came to an abrupt halt when the United States was drawn into World War II. During the war, no one cared much for tennis, causing professional tennis to temporarily come to an end. Riggs himself was drafted into the Navy, and it was not until after the war had ended in 1946 that he stepped back onto court in the professional tour. Immediately, he emerged on top once again. Although Riggs retired from competitive tennis in 1949, he continued to promote the professional sport and was never shy to boast about his own skills and achievements in the game.
Riggs was small in stature and lacked the overall power that some of his larger competitors had, yet still rose through tennis ranks from his use of heavy court strategy, ball control, finesse, and speed. He often outworked his opponents and pushed them out of position, allowing him to hit some of the sport’s best drop shots in history. His bellicose playing style on the court matched his reputation off the court too; he is infamously known to have been a gambler and a hustler—two things he was good at.
It came as no surprise when, in 1973, Riggs and his (possibly egocentric) promotions of the sport came into the national spotlight after he publicly stated that women’s tennis was far inferior to men’s. He also claimed that even at the ripe old age of 55, he could still easily beat the top women’s tennis players.
To back up his brash allegations, Riggs challenged Billie Jean King, whom he called the “women’s libber leader,” to an exhibition match. King, who was 29 years old at the time and already had 10 major singles titles under her belt, repeatedly refused. However, another player took Riggs’ bait, agreeing to play a Mother’s Day exhibition match with Riggs on May 13, 1973. Margaret Court was 30 years old and the match was attended by more than 5,000 people; however, Riggs defeated Court in a crushing 6-2, 6-1 game by way of his uncanny ability to control and dictate his opponent’s moves with drop shots, lobs, and an implausible amount of spin. Riggs’ victory landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which deemed the match a “Mother’s Day Massacre.” Because of Court’s loss, Billie Jean King ultimately accepted the lucrative challenge from Riggs that would take place on September 20, 1973 and would be known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” This match had a $100,000 prize and the primetime stage on ABC network.
King’s career as a tennis player started in 1968 but was propelled forward in 1970 with the creation of the “Original 9.” Nine up-and-coming women in the sport of tennis, including King, signed a one-dollar contract to join the Virginia Slims Circuit to protest the inequality of prize money given between men and women’s games. Even at this time, King was out to revolutionize the game. Often deemed one of the most well-rounded tennis players in the history of the sport, King was a master of all skills needed to play and win a great game. King was considered tennis royalty and the sport was her kingdom. Her career, which dominated the spotlight from 1966-1975, was marked with 32 (out of her total 39) Grand Slam titles. 12 of these titles were singles, 16 were doubles, and 11 were mixed doubles titles. She was a dominant player with an unmistakable on-court presence, known for her unmatched court speed, power, fierce net play, and an air of cutthroat competitiveness. She held the number one world position three times during 1966-68, 1971-72, and in 1974.
King knew that by accepting Riggs’ “Battle of the Sexes” challenge, she would have to play one of the most important matches in women’s tennis history. She said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match” and that “to beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
Before the match in September, during the summer of 1973, she helped create the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first president. She also threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless it started paying their male and female champions equally, forcing the 1973 tournament to become the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to men and women. This was contrasted starkly to Riggs, who at the same time, publicly embraced the title of “chauvinist” making statements such as: “She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability [to win],” and “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” The press and the nation ate the drama up, and the match was set to be a spectacle, and only one of two matches in tennis history to play in an NFL stadium (the other being the 2019 Miami Open).
On Thursday, September 20, 1973, King was down 2-3 in the first set. She was playing cautiously, and as Riggs confidently dominated the first set by winning seven straight points in a row, the stadium became electric. The 1973 Time Magazine noted, “The fat cats in the $100 front-row seats, bedecked with signs that read ‘WHISKEY, WOMEN AND RIGGS’ and ‘WHO NEEDS WOMEN?’ sat back and gleefully awaited a rout.” King wanted to win for all of women’s sports. She often said, "Champions adjust," which is exactly what she did on the court.
Adjusting to the pressure, King forced Riggs to play a game that he simply was not in physical shape to play. As he struggled to chase after long shots, King finished points decisively with volley winners. When she noticed that Riggs was out of gas, she brought him to net to maintain her dominance. King pushed Riggs to the back corners of the court, moving him along the baseline with precise cross court and down-the-line forehands and backhands. Before long, she overpowered him with shots that he could not even get a racket on (70 of her 109 points she played were clean winners).
She was up 6-4, 6-3, 5-3. According to Time Magazine, Riggs’ son Jimmy said on a changeover, “Come on, Dad, wake up!” But it was too late for that. It was match point, and the crowd was hushed with a silent anticipation. King returned the serve and immediately started dominating the baseline. Running Riggs around, she suddenly hit a drop shot halfway through the rally, forcing Riggs to scramble up to net. He returned the shot, only to get a rocketing return hit zooming towards his backhand. He reached his racket in desperation, but caught the ball on the frame, sending it into the bottom of the net on his side. At this point, the match was over. King had won, and in so doing, she changed the history of women’s tennis forever.
Looking back, this monumental match combined with the then recent passage of Title IX, ignited a boom in women’s sport participation, inspiring women everywhere to advocate for equal pay in all sectors of sports and in the workforce. In the end, this is exactly what King had hoped to achieve. “Ever since when I was 11 years old and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis skirt, I knew that I wanted to change the sport,” said King after the match.
The year after her infamous match, King became the first player and coach of a co-ed tennis organization, called World Team Tennis. This organization was the first of its kind, giving equal weight and responsibility to each man and woman competing for their teams. Then, in 1981, King publicly came out as gay, making her the first prominent female athlete to come out. Six years later, King was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, yet even then, she was not satisfied with the advancement of the sport and wanted to bring more equality onto the court.
After her professional tennis career came to a close, she became the first woman commissioner in professional sports history and continued to work for years as a board member of the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization she had formed during her playing days. In 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding work towards the progression of sports equality.
For King, it wasn’t just about changing the world of tennis. Her desire for social change extended beyond. “That’s the way I want the world to look: men and women working together, championing each other, helping each other, promoting each other—we’re all in this world together.”
Billie Jean King championed an atmosphere of equality and acceptance in tennis, though issues of equality and acceptance still exist in most sports. Sadly, the professional world of tennis today still falls back into old pitfalls of gender divisions, phobias, and discrimination similar to those that initially sparked Billie Jean’s activism in the sport.
In 2015, Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky made explosive comments about the women’s tour and their players sexual orientations: “You see, on the ATP [men’s tour], we have a normal atmosphere … in the backbone of the top 100 [players] there are definitely no gays. On the WTA tour, almost every other player is a lesbian … can you imagine—half of them. So I for sure won’t send my daughter to play tennis.”
Such narrow-minded comments reflect old habits that have historically bred an atmosphere of discrimination that has plagued professional tennis. Yet, this serves as a reminder. Activists in women’s tennis, and the professional athletic world in general, are taking on the onerous task of promoting equality, inclusion, and acceptance across all genders in athletics. The journey has been long, and it is far from over. But in the words of Billie Jean King herself, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
Lights Out Issue | May 2019