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In her prime, King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked number one for five years, and more importantly for many women, she beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 battle of the sexes tennis match. We look at the revolution Billie Jean King helped spawn in women’s sports, and why, according to scholar Susan Ware, there’s still further to go. Ware is author of “Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports.”
On the evening of September 20, 1973, an estimated 48 million Americans tuned their televisions sets to an unlikely event: a tennis match at the Houston Astrodome between a twenty-nine-year-old, five-time Wimbledon champion at the top of her game and a fifty-five-year-old former tennis great long past his prime. Many people at the time sensed that all the hoopla surrounding this $100,000, winner-take-all “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was about more than just a tennis match, although nobody could really say why. Was it because the country was sick of Watergate, inflation, and the energy crisis and wanted a diversion? Was the match a referendum on the new — and to many, troubling — social movement called women’s liberation? Was the circus atmosphere an example of media hype gone awry? In fact, the contemporary and historical significance of the match derived from the congruence of all three — a “perfect storm,” as it were, in the history of sports, entertainment, and modern feminism.
In 1973 Billie Jean King was the right feminist in the right sport at the right moment in American history. What she proved that night in a courageous performance of physical prowess and nerves of steel was that women did not choke, women were not frail and weak, women could face pressure and take it — live, on national television, with no second takes. In just under two hours, she forced a reexamination of what it meant to be female and an athlete, or as a New York Times editorial later put it, “In a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.” Donna Lopiano of the Women’s Sports Foundation suggests comparing it to a woman winning the presidency: “That was the magnitude of the sports barrier in those days. For a woman to be accepted on an equal playing field was so far beyond one’s comprehension. That’s what Billie Jean represented. If it doesn’t seem like such a big thing today, it’s because the measuring sticks of old no longer apply, and today’s have no relevance to what happened then.” As soccer coach April Heinrichs said in 1999, “When we look back in 20 years, I really think we are going to say that the Billie Jean King–Bobby Riggs tennis match, Title IX and the 1999 Women’s World Cup are the three largest pillars supporting women’s sports in this country.”
Whenever Billie Jean King was asked whether the Riggs match was the biggest of her career, she always distinguished between its athletic significance (no) and its social significance (definitely yes). “I wanted to help the women’s movement and it did. I wanted to make the Virginia Slims tour flourish, and it did. I wanted to help men and women understand each other better. And they did.” To this day, strangers, especially women, still approach her to tell her that the match changed their lives: giving them the courage to go back to school, take up a new sport, or leave an unsatisfactory personal relationship. For all its feminist flourishes, however, King seemed most proud to have brought tennis to a far greater national audience than traditionally followed the game: “On that night, I think, the game of tennis finally got kicked out of the country clubs forever and into the world of real sports, where everybody could see it.” Or as she put it after the match, “This is a culmination of a lifetime in sport. Tennis has always been reserved for the rich, the white, the males — and I’ve always pledged to change all that. There’s still a lot to be done, but this is certainly a great high point.”
The debut of Open Tennis in 1968, which toppled the old “shamateur” system by allowing professional and amateur tennis players to compete for prize money in tournaments such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, was a major step in taking tennis into the modern era. Billie Jean King actively lobbied for this change, but then found she had a second battle to fight: winning parity for women professionals from tennis association leaders and tournament directors who believed nobody cared about women’s tennis,
certainly not enough to pay women prize money anywhere near equal to men. In 1970 a group of nine women led by King broke off and formed their own professional tour, which soon came to be known as Virginia Slims. Billie Jean King always claimed her activism was driven by much more than just prize money: “The money’s fine, but everyone’s talked about the money so much they forget what the purpose was, for me anyway. The purpose is to enable women to play and to make people pay attention.” The press quickly dubbed them “women’s lob.”
For her activism Billie Jean King earned a reputation as the “clenched fist of women’s tennis,” but the Battle of the Sexes wasn’t just about her. She needed a foil, a coconspirator, perhaps an enabler, and Bobby Riggs was more than happy to play all those roles. As her doubles partner Rosie Casals once said, only half in jest, “Bobby Riggs did more for women’s tennis than anybody.”
Robert Larimore Riggs had been one of the top-ranked American players in the 1930s, “a tennis natural” in Pancho Segura’s opinion and a true tennis legend who swept all three Wimbledon titles (men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles) in 1939. Showing an early affinity for gambling, he placed a bet on that unlikely trifecta with London bookies and won a tidy sum. With no opportunities left as an amateur, he turned professional, but that just meant endless exhibition matches in out-of-the-way places for not much money. After a stint in the armed services during World War II, followed by marriage and an undemanding career, he found his calling as a hustler, always ready to take on a challenge in tennis, golf, or whatever, as long as there was a wager involved. “If I can’t play for big money, I play for a little money. And if I can’t play for a little money, I stay in bed that day.” He almost always won, even if he played carrying an umbrella, with a dog on a leash, or with a suitcase in one hand. On the rare occasions when he lost, he always paid his bets. He was a showman, but an honest one. “All my life everything has been a contest. . . . I love the competition — and that’s the thing I crave, like some guys crave alcohol and other guys crave women. I crave the game.”
Wondering how to get a piece of the action — and the money — gravitating toward tennis in the new open era, Riggs came up with the idea of challenging a top woman player. Billie Jean King was his first choice, but she turned him down repeatedly, feeling she had nothing to gain — and a lot to lose — from such a match. Undeterred, Riggs went after Margaret Court, the Australian player then ranked number one in the world. Thinking it would be just a Sunday afternoon exhibition match with a tidy pay off, she accepted. Like so many opponents before and after her, Court underestimated Bobby Riggs, whose 6-2, 6-1 demolition of her on May 13, 1973, became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre. When the leading woman tennis player in the world loses to an over-the-hill male player who, in Rosie Casals’s memorable words, “is an old man, he walks like a duck, he can’t see, he can’t hear and, besides he’s an idiot,” it does not say much for the depth of the women’s professional tennis tour then struggling to establish its
legitimacy. As soon as Billie Jean King heard the results, she knew that she had to play Riggs to uphold the honor of the women’s game she was fighting so hard to promote.
As the hype began to build in late August and early September of 1973, practically every major magazine and newspaper devoted significant coverage to this “story,” which straddled the line between sports, news, and entertainment.8 Bobby Riggs supplied about 90 percent of the copy, having realized that outrageous statements against women’s lib got him more attention than sticking to tennis. Three examples: “I plan to bomb Billie Jean King in the match and set back the Women’s Lib movement about
another 20 years”; “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot”; and, “Women play about twenty-five percent as good as men, so they should get about twenty-five percent of the money men get.” Most of this sexist posturing was for show. When journalist Nora Ephron asked Riggs what he really knew about women’s liberation, he replied, “You’re not going to believe this. Nothing.”
One of the things that made this match so irresistible was that it promised to crown a winner — and a loser — in what was both a tennis match and a national debate about women’s changing roles. Everybody had an opinion, everybody could pick a side, and by the end of the night, somebody would win — what a perfect incentive to bet on the outcome. Of course betting on sports events (legal or otherwise) was very much part of male sports culture, but tennis matches did not usually draw this attention. Jimmy the Greek gave odds at 5-2 Riggs, and a lot of wagers were laid. Not all of them involved cash. As Bobby Riggs said, “Men can bet against their wives, bosses can bet against their secretaries. The outcome may determine who does the dishes or pays for the movies in millions of homes. Everybody cares.”
While the media coverage made it sound like all men backed Riggs and all women backed King, she had plenty of male supporters, as writer Dan Wakefield realized in an admittedly unscientific survey: “Billie Jean’s staunch male supporters included my local druggist, my neighborhood banker, the building manager of the Atlantic Monthly Company (he had recently bought his own tennis racket) and my retired father in Indianapolis.” But King forged a special bond with women, who embraced the tennis star the way the African American community had celebrated boxer Joe Louis in the 1930s. To King’s chagrin, however, many female tennis pros, including a teenaged Chris Evert on ABC’s pregame warm-up show, predicted that Riggs would prevail. Reflected a mature Evert many years later with a laugh, “I was such an idiot. I’ve changed since.”
Billie Jean King relished her underdog role: “Up until now, I’ve always been the heavy. You know, I’m the leader. I’m responsible for women’s tennis. For once, I’m the underdog. I love it.” Riggs’s seemingly effortless win over Court gave a lot of credibility to the idea that even a middle-aged man could beat a woman at the top of her game, which in turn played on longstanding beliefs about women’s physical and emotional inferiority compared to men. As Michael Murray observed in Commonweal, “By some magic of timing and circumstances, this confrontation between an aging playboy hustler and a tennis- obsessed woman came to symbolize many of the resentments and excitements that constitute the mixed- up American male-female relationship at the moment.” Among the major news vehicles, only the Wall Street Journal picked her to win.
In retrospect, an interesting undercurrent in the media coverage was the prominent role of Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser-turned-personal-secretary-turned-lover who would sue Billie Jean King in a “palimony” suit in 1981. Barnett is everywhere in the coverage, even fleetingly visible in the ABC telecast. Newsweek called her “the equivalent of a second” in King’s corner, “who sits worshipfully at courtside during her workouts, oversees her diet and weight program, and attempts to shield her from most journalists.” On the night of the match, the New York Times described the “25-year-old pale, willowy blonde” as “perhaps the calmest person in the house.” Although King did not consider herself a lesbian at the time (she was still married to her husband, Larry), the strain of concealing the relationship must have added to the stress of the match. Today the press probably would be all over it, but in 1973 the line still held — tenuously — between what was considered news and what was considered off-limits in speculating about a celebrity’s private life.
Without the national television coverage for which ABC paid an estimated $750,000, complete with Howard Cosell in a hairpiece and tux and tennis players Rosie Casals and Gene Scott as combative color commentators, the event would never have had the impact on the national psyche that it did. One media commentator observed, “TV has demonstrated again its capacity to focus the entire country on a single event, unifying millions of people, for the space of those moments, as they have rarely been before.” Less
charitably, the New York Times called the televised production “an unholy alliance between Miss America and the Rose Bowl Parade.” The event’s most immediate predecessor was the much-hyped boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, staged, not coincidentally, by Jerry Perenchio, the same promoter who had Bobby Riggs come into the Astrodome surrounded by scantily clad women and Billie Jean King enter on a throne carried by equally scantily clad men. If one of the main trends of the second half of the twentieth century was the coming together of sports and entertainment, then this Battle of the Sexes represented a key milestone.
The match itself could have seemed anticlimactic, that is, if the stakes hadn’t been so high for Billie Jean King, who was carrying, it seemed, the expectations of half the population on her shoulders. “So much was going on to make women feel things were changing in the world,” she recalled. “But in their own lives, not much had changed. There was a disconnect there. That’s what made this match huge. Huge!” Her task was clear: “I just had to win.” She later admitted that for years afterward she would wake in the middle of the night still thinking she had to play Riggs, only to gratefully fall back to sleep realizing that she already had.
Billie Jean King arrived in Houston “feeling fit and that there was not one more thing I could do to prepare. That’s the greatest feeling as an athlete.” Rather than being thrown off by the hype and the pressure (“Pressure is a privilege” is a favorite King mantra),16 the tennis star embraced the chance to publicize her sport and the cause of women’s tennis before a huge national audience: “I can remember winning a championship and there were only three reporters there,” she told the assembled press corps. “I remember. I’m glad you’re all here tonight.” Bobby Riggs spent his time schmoozing with his supporters, guzzling vitamins (reportedly 415 a day), and basking in the limelight. All this off-court activity did him in. Lornie Kuhle said of his close buddy, who looked exhausted and drained from the moment he stepped on the court, “It was like Bobby finally realized that the final exam was here and he hadn’t studied for it.”
Billie Jean King built her tennis career around an aggressive serve-and-volley game and that was how she originally planned to play Riggs. But when she walked onto the court she did what champions do — adjust — and switched to what she later called “Plan B.” Sensing that Riggs might not be strong enough to go the distance in a five-set match, she decided to prolong points by running him around the court and hit balls softly so that he would have to generate all the pace. Sure enough, Riggs began to tire visibly in the first set, although not before breaking her serve at 2-all to take the lead. King broke right back and won the first set 6-4 on a Riggs double fault. Even though Riggs continued to have trouble with his serve in the second set, they remained on serve until King broke him in the eighth game and then served out the set 6-3. Continuing to play steady if unspectacular tennis against her ill-prepared and outclassed opponent, Billie Jean King methodically controlled the tempo of the match throughout the third set —
that is, until she was up 5-3 with Riggs serving, and the two played the second-longest game of the match. King just couldn’t seem to finish him off (is she choking, fans wondered?) as the game went repeatedly to deuce. On match point number three Riggs feebly netted a backhand, and it was finally game, set, match, Billie Jean. Riggs seemed so tired that King marveled he had the energy to jump over the net to congratulate her.
Time to celebrate — or eat crow. Sports Illustrated, which the week before had predicted Riggs would win, called King’s performance “a classic example of a skilled athlete performing at peak efficiency in the most important moment of her life.” So many people had been seduced by the media hype to think about this match only in gender terms that they forgot that it was also a match pitting the young versus the old, which was painfully on display as the match unfolded. To his credit, Riggs was gracious in defeat, admitting to his opponent at courtside, “You were too good.” Rumors that Riggs deliberately lost the match have been consistently — and convincingly — denied by all parties over the years. Billie Jean King’s decision to play Bobby Riggs was a conscious political act. She always realized tha the match was much bigger than just tennis, and she was willing to put her hard-won credibility on the line to prove the point that women deserved just as much respect as men. Even though the outcome now seems preordained, at the time people really felt it could go either way. Would a loss by King have irrevocably damaged the history of women’s sports or derailed second-wave feminism? Probably not, but it would have been an embarrassing, indeed humbling affirmation of many of the old stereotypes that women at the time were trying to upend. But victory — how satisfying. Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona relished the result: “The guy was older and was this and that, but the truth is, it was a worldwide movement that needed a finishing statement. And Billie Jean King gave it to us.” Future sportswriter Christine Brennan captured the sweet vindication as only a fifteen-year-old aspiring athlete could: “We won. The girls won.”
Copyright 2011 The University of North Carolina Press