Billie Jean King and the match that changed tennis

On September 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played the historic “Battle of the Sexes”. Battle of the Sexes was nationally televised in prime time on the ABC network. Over 50 million viewers tuned in to the boob tube to watch Battle of the Sexes.

In 1973 Billie Jean King again won Wimbledon’s singles and doubles championships. After her Wimbledon championships, she openly criticized the low prize money offered to women competitors. She noted that women received far less than men for what she considered equal ability and effort. Her statements on equal pay led a major U.S. drug manufacturer to offer of a large sum of money to make the prize money at the U.S. Open equal for both men and women.

Billie Jean King’s career coincided with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Her working class upbringing in southern California and the second class treatment she received as a professional athlete made her a natural spokesperson for the movement.

In the 1970s Billie Jean King helped found the Women’s Tennis Association. Billie Jean King created, a union for female players that helped raise the pay for the women’s game, so that women could afford to go pro.

In 1970, Billie Jean King and a few other female players boycotted a professional tennis tournament because the men were paid ten times as much as the women. In addition to boycotting the tennis tournament, Billie Jean King and the other female tennis players started the Virginia Slims Tournament and offered sum to the winner. Billie Jean King was instrumental in the US Open’s paying equal amounts to men and women.

At the height of the women’s rights movement, 55 year-old Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King to a match. Best of five sets. Riggs and other men thought King would lose and prove that a woman belonged in the kitchen and had no business on the tennis court. According to Riggs, “Women were not good athletes, were simply too weak and besides, they were just women.”

The “Battle of the Sexes” captured the imagination of the country, not just tennis fans. On Sept. 20, 1973 in Houston, Billie Jean King was carried out on the Astrodome court like Cleopatra, in a gold litter held aloft by four muscular men dressed as ancient slaves. Riggs was wheeled in on a rickshaw pulled by sexy models in tight outfits, who were called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.”

A sell-out crowd of 30,492 people, the largest ever for a tennis match, filled the Houston Astrodome while millions more in 36 countries tuned in on television to watch King, a five-time Wimbledon champion, take on the hated Bobby Riggs.

When the match began, Billie Jean King was very intense. She served the first game and won. Riggs took the next game on his serve, and captured three straight points in the third game. King became more aggressive, smashing shots that Riggs simply couldn’t reach. She won the first set 6-4. Of the 34 points she scored in the set, Riggs never touched 26 of them. The set ended when Riggs, who said he never choked, double-faulted on set point with the game count at 4-5.

Billie Jean King won the second set, 6-3. By the third set Riggs was exhausted and suffering hand cramps. King won easily, 6-3. She had proven to be the aggressor, charging the net and delivering hard serves and volleys. More important, perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive in pressure filled situations. Above all, even more significant than her winning 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles, she was a pioneer. In 1975, Seventeen magazine polled its readers and found that King was the most admired woman in the world. Golda Meir, who had been Israel’s prime minister until the previous year, finished second.

Riggs explained the loss, “She was too good, too fast. She returned all my passing shots and made great plays off them, I was trying to play my game, but I couldn’t.”

After retiring from competitive tennis, Billie Jean King remained in the game, as an announcer, a coach, and author. She gave clinics, became director of World Team Tennis, and played on a Legends tour. Her legs might have given out, but not her passion for the game. “In the 70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes,” she said. “We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports.”

Billie Jean King believes that she was born with a destiny to work for gender equity in sports and to continue until gender equality is achieved.