Inside Tennis Remembers the Battle of the Sexes

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Bill Simons

Time passes. We forget – or maybe we never knew. Fifty years ago, it was a different world.

Guys ruled, gals followed. Sure, women were valued as pretty things, but they couldn’t get a credit card or buy a house. There were few openings for them in law or medical schools. And forget about being in a boardroom or having a seat with any political punch.

But then, with much fury, the women’s movement began to push back. As bras were burned, streets bulged with demonstrations, a woman ran for president, lawsuits were won and modest gains were made.

Then in 1973, a blustery hustler elbowed his way into the fray. Enter Bobby Riggs. The man-child who refused to grow up was tennis’ greatest gambler and most beloved scoundrel. In 1939 he won $105,000 betting on himself to win Wimbledon’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships. The former No. 1 won 99 titles. More famously, the master of the preposterous beat club players while having a dog on a leash, carrying a sack of silver dollars or dressed as a baby.

Emerging out of LA’s old school tennis fraternity and living with his gambling addiction and a mid-life crisis, the imaginative and shameless 55-year-old, who took 415 vitamin pills a day, watched how a new generation of hippies, yippies, wannabe yogis and women’s libbers were reshaping his world. Now, “dames” actually had the audacity to want to enter the upper echelons of the workforce and make a living off of his sport.

But the restless, inventive Riggs had an inspired idea for a sting.

The son of a fundamentalist minister who told us, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom – and not necessarily in that order,” decided to promote himself as a male chauvinist pig. He brilliantly envisioned that he might just make a bundle and again gain headlines if somehow he could manage to get tennis’ prime rabble-rouser to agree to a $100,000 winner-take-all exhibition match.

Billie Jean King wasn’t a conventional, in-your-face feminist. She was tennis’ Joan of Arc, who’d just won Wimbledon and had already stormed one barricade after another. Still, Mother Freedom, as Billie was called, knew Bobby well and made it clear she didn’t want any part of his clever, potentially disastrous, scheme. After all, if she lost, it would be a catastrophe for women and the new women’s circuit that was struggling to emerge.

So, Riggs pushed the envelope. He first challenged tennis’ most dominant player, 22 Slam winner Margaret Court, to a match. The Aussie was tall and powerful, but emotionally stiff. As John Wayne, O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby looked on, the clueless Aussie was humiliated, 6-2, 6-1, in what was dubbed “The Mother’s Day Massacre.” So the die was cast. Riggs was in the driver’s seat.

Bobby barked: “[I want] the sex leader of the revolutionary plot…I’ll play her on marble or on roller skates.” He boasted, “The male is king; the male is supreme. Girls play a nice game of tennis. But when they get out there with a man, even a tired man of 55, they’re going to be in big trouble…Women don’t have the emotional stability to be athletes. I want to set women’s liberation back 20 years.”

Now King could no longer dodge Riggs. And so the greatest inter-gender sporting event of all time, the best-of-five-sets Battle of the Sexes, was set for September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome – 50 years ago tomorrow.

For Bobby it was a time to seek out endorsements, to gamble and to party with the ladies. It was an irresistible opportunity to unleash an inspired PR blitz full of clownish stunts.

But it was no joke for King. Except for a few promotions, she retreated into seclusion on Hilton Head, trained hard, studied Riggs’s game and overcame a nasty fever. For Billie it was all very serious and all very simple. “I kept thinking this was not about a tennis match, this was about social change…It was life or death.” Everything for women was on the line – losing was not an option.

Unlike any other event before, the battle polarized men and women.

Riggs was on the cover of Time magazine. Celebrities raced to Houston.

That day, a record 30,472 boisterous fans relished the circus atmosphere in the Astrodome and lifted their competing signs. “Whiskey, Women and Riggs,” said one. “The Libber over the Lobber,” countered another. As cheerleaders pranced and a marching band roared, Billie Jean (the 5’ 5” 5-2 underdog) bought into the hoopla and entered the arena on a lavish Roman litter carried by shirtless hunks. Bobby, who’d pledged to jump off a bridge if he lost, wore his sponsor’s bright yellow Sugar Daddy warm-up jacket and presented Billie with an oversized candy bar. King gave Riggs a squirming piglet.

Courtside, fashion designer Oleg Cassini offered the conventional male wisdom: “No matter what they say, there’s no way a good woman can beat a fairly good man.”

In the TV booth, Gene Scott picked Riggs in straight sets and praised the unique populist event for undermining “the snob appeal” of tennis. Billie Jean’s pal, broadcaster Rosie Casals, ridiculed Riggs, saying, “I wouldn’t consider someone who walks like a duck to be a good athlete.”

As 90 million people around the globe tuned in, Howard Cosell set the scene for the most watched match of all time. The Battle was “a happening – like Monday Night Football,” he said. “There’s been nothing like this since Minnesota Fats played Zsa Zsa Gabor in billiards.”

He condescendingly added, “Billie Jean King is a very attractive lady. If she ever grew her hair down to her shoulders and took off her glasses, you’d have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test.”

But for now, the woman who made the phrase “Pressure is a privilege” a mantra faced the test of her life. Millions of women were on the edge of their seats – this was make or break.

Cosell noted, “Riggs’s constant theme has been the big act, the big bluster, the big noise.” But soon the California “junk and bunk artist” proved to have no weapons, no tactics, no speed and no stamina to counter Billie Jean’s savvy, fleet athleticism.

The net-charging 29-year-old called on her big match experience, her relative youth, her weaponized backhand and her focus to humiliate her aging, gasping foe, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Sullen and exhausted, Riggs left in humiliation, and King’s win gave women everywhere a triumphant moment that spat at a pervasive old school mindset.

It was just a tennis match. But decades later Billie told IT that if she’d lost, “it would have set us back 50 years…It would have ruined the women’s tour and affected all women’s esteem…It was a one-time thing.

It transcended the match. So much was involved. The emotions that men and women were feeling about themselves, the opposite gender, and their children were just incredible.”

Women have long told King that her win changed their marriages or gave them the courage to ask their bosses for raises (or, better yet, become the boss themselves). Over the years, a curious conspiracy theory emerged that gambling addict Riggs rigged the match. But while that idea never gained traction, Billie Jean’s stature soared to Herculean heights. She’s led parades, entered countless Halls of Fame and won a bucketful of medals. Books have been written, movies made, libraries and international competitions now celebrate her name, and fans and players from Melbourne to New York’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center bathe her in praise.

Her victory prompted a can-do, warrior sensibility that would affect almost all sports, bring equal pay to all the Slams, and inspire Venus and Serena, Osaka and Gauff, and girls from Tunisia to India and Israel to China to go for it.

Only a handful of sports moments have changed the world. Jesse Owens’s Olympic sprints humbled Hitler. Jackie Robinson demolished baseball’s ban on Blacks. Muhammad Ali refused to go to war. Nelson Mandela used rugby to prompt reconciliation. And, thanks to the most endearing foil in tennis history – a flawed, unrepentant male chauvinist with a good heart – BJK was able to use The Battle of the Sexes to knee rampant sexism in the groin and to gain an unprecedented platform.

King notes that women are now appreciated more for their accomplishments than their looks. And she insists that women’s rights are good for everyone.

“There hasn’t been a day,” she said, “Without someone mentioning that match…Women tell me it gave them courage to ask for what they needed. It gave them more self-confidence…The other day a woman told me she hadn’t thought much of herself, she didn’t think she could do much. But she saw the match and said, ‘From that day forward I felt I could be anything…and since then, I’ve had a great life.’ It’s chilling to hear these things.”

Soon after the Battle of the Sexes, tennis courts were jam packed.

Bountiful tennis TV contracts were signed and the tennis boom, the first huge surge in participatory sports, unfolded.

Billie and Bobby ultimately became pals and in 1995, the dying Riggs looked at her and said, “We did it – we helped change the world.” 

But why did all this happen? Billie Jean said that tennis’ great springboard “was meant to be…When I was seven, I told my mother I was going to do something great with my life. She said, ‘Dry the dishes…you’ve got homework to do.’” Twenty-two years later, King recalled how her destiny had unfolded. “It was at the height of the women’s movement, we were just coming off of Vietnam, Watergate was starting to heat up – it was a very tumultuous time. I guess God put me on Earth at the right time.”

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