On This Day

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Associated Press
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at a press conference promoting their match, July 11, 1973.

On This Day: Billie Jean King Defeats Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes”

September 20, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 20, 1973, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a heavily hyped tennis match played before more than 30,000 people at the Houston Astrodome. Her victory stands as an important milestone in the rise of women’s athletics.

King Routs Riggs in Straight Sets

Bobby Riggs was a tennis star of the 1930s and ‘40s went on to become a tennis “hustler” and frequent participant in senior tennis tournaments. In the 1970s, he began campaigning for better pay for seniors; a natural self-promoter, he publicly teased female star Billie Jean King for her own work in seeking equal pay for women, contending that the top women couldn’t even beat the senior men.

In 1973, he challenged King and other top female players to a match.  Australian Margaret Court, ranked No. 1 at the time, accepted the offer, mostly because she wanted the money. On Mother’s Day 1973, on a small court in San Diego, the 55-year-old Riggs routed Court 6-2, 6-1, in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

When King heard of the result, she felt obligated to play Riggs. The two arranged for a second “Battle of the Sexes” match on Sept. 20 at the Houston Astrodome for a winner-take-all prize of $100,000. Riggs adopted the persona of a “male chauvinist pig” to hype the match, ridiculing women’s athletics and the women’s liberation movement.

The match drew 30,000 to the Astrodome, including a wide range of celebrities. It was “a production worthy of Barnum,” wrote Curry Fitzpatrick in Sports Illustrated, with King entering the court held aloft like Cleopatra by four men and Riggs in a rickshaw pulled by “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.”

But once the match began, King put the spectacle aside and played determined tennis, easily beating Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. “Because of Billie Jean alone, who was representing a sex supposedly unequipped for such things, what began as a huckster’s hustle in defiance of serious athleticism ended up not mocking the game of tennis but honoring it,” said Fitzpatrick.

In The New York Times, Neil Amdur wrote, “Mrs. King squashed Riggs with tools synonymous with men’s tennis, the serve and volley. She beat Bobby to the ball, dominated the net and ran him around the baseline to the point of near exhaustion in the third set …Most important, perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women.”

The Impact of the Match

The match occurred at a time when women were making large strides in athletics. Just a year earlier, Congress had passed Title IX, which compelled high schools and colleges to grant women equal access to athletics. King’s victory contributed to changing attitudes about women’s sports, as many who watched her began to take women’s sports more seriously.

Writing in Sports Illustated in 1998, Frank Deford said, “The significance of that event was often masked by the silliness … But in the end, that foolish showdown at the Astrodome was something that really mattered. … [B]y playing Bobby and thrashing him, Billie Jean King didn’t just raise consciousness, which was the feminist mantra then. No, she absolutely changed consciousness.”

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