The tennis match between the then Word No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champion Bobby Riggs in 1973 has been famously referred to as the “Battle of the Sexes.” It is the most-watched televised sports event of all time and has garnered attention worldwide.
The famous tennis match was held at the Houston Astrodome between the 29-year-old Women’s world champion Billie Jean King and the 55-year-old men’s former world champion Bobby Riggs. King went on to win in three sets, ushering in a new era of recognition for women in tennis, sports, and other walks of life.
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King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, coming from behind in the first set when she was trailing 2-3. An audience saw the famous match of 50 million in the United States and 90 million overall. The Houston Astrodome recorded an attendance of 30,472, which remained the largest audience for a tennis match in the U.S. so far. This is one of those events that will be remembered as an important turning point in sports history.
Billie Jean King’s background
Billie Jean King is the former World No.1 tennis player with a stunning 390 Grand Slams. She won 16 Grand Slams in women’s doubles, 11 in mixed doubles, and 12 in singles. King represented the U.S. in the Wightman Cup and the Federation Cup and won the Grand Slam title. She is the winner of the inaugural WTA Finals, and since 2014 the winner of the tournament receives the Billie Jean King Trophy. Billie Jean remained the U.S. captain in the Federation Cup for 3 years and a member of the winning U.S. team in 7 Federation Cups.
King is considered to be among the greatest tennis players of all time. In 1987 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was jointly the 1975 Time Persons of the Year and shared the Sportsman of the Year (1975 Sports Illustrated) with John Wooden. The USTA National Tennis Center in NYC is named after this legendary tennis player, and she is also part of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Gender Equality Advocate
Besides her success in the sport, she also emerged as an advocate for gender equality over the decades. Her victory in the Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs gave her global recognition beyond her sports successes. King is also the Women’s Sports Foundation founder and the Women’s Tennis Association, among other pioneering efforts. She is also the first female athlete to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.
King was one of the “Original 9” players who formed the Virginia Slim Series. The group was formed to end the inequality in pay and treatment of men and women winners in tennis. The group created its own tournaments and organized its own tours, and it went on to become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). It will be hard to exaggerate King’s influence in changing the sport. She took tennis beyond a profession, advocated for gender equality in both recognition and pay, and set an example for women worldwide to strive for equality.
Battle of the Sexes – Billie Jean King on Today Show
Bobby Riggs’ background
Famously known as Bobby Riggs, Robert Larimore Riggs was an American former World No.1 in amateur and professional tennis. Riggs is often touted as a clutch player because of his ability to defeat more popular and bigger players. He won Wimbledon in 1939 when he was just 21 and an amateur player. The same year he also won the U.S. Open (then U.S. National Championships). He was propelled to become the World No.1 the same year.
In 1940 he won the U.S. Open mixed-doubles title and again won the singles title in 1941. Riggs then served for 3 years in the U.S. Navy before returning to win the U.S. Pro Championships for three years. At the peak of his professional career, he retired and was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
He became most famous for the Battle of the Sexes match of 1973, in which he competed against the then World No.1 women’s player, Billie Jean King. It is among the most famous tennis matches of all time and is considered a cornerstone in its history.
Bobby Riggs vs. Margaret Court
Two other matches are also referred to as the Battle of the Sexes, and one of them includes Riggs facing Margaret Court just four months before his famous match against King. This match is the “Mother’s Day” match, and Riggs was instrumental in making it happen. He won this match which didn’t receive as much publicity as the “Battle of the Sexes” match against King.
The Riggs vs. Court match took place at a new resort in Ramona, California. The club put up temporary bleachers, but they weren’t filled.
The court was 30 years old at the time and had 21 major singles titles to her name. She was the favorite against a 55-year-old Riggs, who seemed to shadow his former great self. However, things didn’t turn out how the media fraternity and the audience expected them to be. Riggs disrupted Court’s rhythm and won the match 6-2, 6-1. According to Court, she expected the match to be friendly and stuck to traditional serve-and-volley tennis. However, she found Riggs taking the game too seriously, and he was successful in breaking her rhythm and winning the match with ease.
The Battle of the Sexes in Houston
The Battle of the Sexes match took place between King and Riggs on September 20, 1973, at Houston Astrodome. One of the main reasons the match received its overwhelming 90 million worldwide TV audience (and 50 million American audiences) was increasing calls for equality by women from all walks of life.
Riggs has almost always been desperate to remain in the public spotlight. He has had been instigating King to play a tennis match with him. King and Court were the two top women players of the time. When Riggs couldn’t convince King at first, he somehow made Court agree to the contest.
King was already working for the cause of women, and when she came to know about the Riggs vs. Court match, she was specifically reached out to Court and asked her to take the match seriously. When Court lost the match, King had a strong reason to take on the old hustler Riggs, and she beat him in the best of threes, ushering in a new era emphasizing the importance of women in sports and society. After losing the match to King, Bobby Riggs uttered the famous words, “I underestimated you.”
When King won the Battle of the Sexes matches against Riggs, it was a big feat for proponents of gender equality. Despite that, the match highlighted the chauvinistic elements – not just in the loud-mouthed boastings of Riggs but also in the way the promoter, some journalists, and well-known spectators reacted and claimed men’s superiority. Things became even more sensational, especially because King beat Riggs after he had already beaten Court, and the women’s movement had taken a hit.
When King decided to play against Riggs, she took the match as much more than just a publicity event. She felt that winning the match was important for women’s tennis and the women’s equality movement. There was also a widespread perception that women tennis players were inferior to men tennis players. Riggs further boosted this stereotypical idea. According to King, if she lost the match against the chauvinist, it would have set the women’s movement back by at least half a century. And in winning the match, she ushered in a new era for women in not just tennis but in all walks of life.
Even after decades, the legacy of the Battle of the Sexes tennis match has not faded. A film named “Battle of the Sexes” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2017. It was produced by Decibel Films and Cloud Eight Films and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The film stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone as Riggs and King, respectively. It was also released in the U.S. the same month. The film used tennis players Vince Spadea and Kaitlyn Christian as body doubles for the actors for tennis scenes. The film also stars Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman, Austin Stowell, and Andrea Riseborough.
The movie dramatizes the events leading up to the famous tennis match. It also sheds light on the personal lives of the two-star players. The film garnered positive reviews from both audiences and critics. Emma Stone’s role of King is considered the best performance of her career by many critics.
By Mike O’Halloran
Mike is the founder and editor of Sports Feel Good Stories. He used to teach tennis.
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