“I’m like a fire hose when the alarm goes off in a battle against a woman.”
These dramatic words were uttered by a former Wimbledon champion named Bobby Riggs on May 13, 1973—Mother’s Day. Riggs, who was described in a leading sports magazine at the time as a “bespectacled, ferret-faced, squeaky-voiced, little gentleman of leisure,” did have a good, if somewhat perverse, reason to brag: He had just humiliated the world’s best woman tennis player, Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1, in a challenge match outside San Diego. The contest was so one-sided that it would forever be known as the Mother’s Day Massacre. It all may sound like a bush-league exhibition gimmick now, but it was important enough to land Riggs on the cover of Sports Illustrated a few days later.
Yet it wasn’t Court that Riggs had wanted on the other side of the net that day. It was the woman he described as the “sex leader of the revolutionary pack,” Billie Jean King. After his Massacre, he got her. When King saw that Court had been undone by Riggs’s devilish junk shots and non-stop jibber-jabber between points, she knew she had to take the hustler’s dare. The honor of half the world’s population demanded it.
So 40 years ago today, on September 20, 1973, a 29-year-old woman played a 55-year-old man in a tennis match in the Houston Astrodome. That might not sound like a promising set-up for a nationally televised, $100,000, winner-take-all event, but this wasn’t a normal moment in time. After a summer spent worrying about Watergate, the first OPEC oil crisis, imminent defeat in Vietnam, and a looming recession, the country was in need of a distraction. The Battle of the Sexes, which mixed harmless entertainment with timely social politics, fit the bill perfectly.
From the distance of 40 years, it’s hard to understand what the fuss was about. But as Donna Lopiano of the Women’s Sports Foundation told author Susan Ware in 2011, a woman beating a man in tennis at that time was about as fathomable as a woman becoming president.
“That was the magnitude of the sports barrier in those days,” Lopiano said. “For a woman to be accepted on an equal playing field was so far beyond anyone’s comprehension. That’s what Billie Jean represented.”
At a time when the feminist movement was changing male-female relations elsewhere, and before 1972’s Title IX legislation had begun to force doors open for women in sports, the field of play functioned as a refuge for men, a place where they could still believe they safely reigned supreme.
So on the evening of Sept. 20, more men and women—40 million in total—watched a tennis match than ever had before, or ever have since. As a spectacle, it lived up to the considerable hype. In the words of one writer who attended, the scene inside the Astrodome was a cross between a “political convention, championship prizefight, rock festival, tent revival, town meeting, Super Bowl, and a sick joke.”
This was 70s camp at its highest. King was carried in on an Egyptian litter held by a posse of shirtless men; Riggs, who said beforehand that he was going to “bomb Billie Jean and send the women’s libbers back where they came from,” was escorted by a group of models known as Bobby’s Bosom Buddies. He gave her a Sugar Daddy sucker as a pre-match gift; she presented him with a live pig, which promptly laid down and went to sleep on the sidelines. Athletes, politicians, Hollywood stars: They all had to be in the Astrodome that night.
But for all of the evening’s frivolity, and all of Riggs’s Barnum-like blarney, his challenge hadn’t just been about a woman’s ability to beat a man in tennis. It had been about something even more radical and objectionable to many: The fact that women had begun to be paid a significant amount of money to play sports. King had helped found the women’s professional tennis tour three years earlier, and she had been the first woman to earn $100,000 in a season, in 1971. Bobby Riggs didn’t like it. “If she can’t beat a tired old man,” he said of King, “she doesn’t deserve half her dough.”
That, as much as the wider and more nebulous idea of gender equality, was what King was playing and fighting for. She liked to say that men were happy to give women the recognition they wanted, until it came to giving them money. To that end, in 1972 she had been instrumental in persuading the U.S. Open to become the first Grand Slam to offer equal pay for men and women, a move so progressive that it would take the French Open and Wimbledon more than three decades to follow suit.
King believed that she had to beat Riggs, there was simply no alternative, and she did, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, with a fine mix of attacking tennis and grind-it-out consistency that wore the older man down. Afterward, Sports Illustrated said of her, “Seldom has there been a more classic example of a skilled athlete performing at peak efficiency in the most important moment of her life.”
King admitted later that it hadn’t been easy. She was as much a product of her upbringing in the Mad Men 1950s and early 60s as any other woman of that day. Even as she walked on court in the Astrodome, she found it hard to imagine that she could beat a man, even if he was a clownish hustler 26 years her senior.
“The trouble with me as a woman,” King later wrote, “is that I was brought up as a girl in a boy’s world, and an awful lot of prejudices are locked within me. A major reason I had to seclude myself for so long in advance of the match with Bobby Riggs was to help me get comfortable with the idea of beating a man. Even now, that’s very hard for me to deal with; some things are deeply ingrained.
I’m not altogether sure I could have made myself beat Riggs except for the fact that what he stood for began to supersede who he was. If Bobby had been the same player, but just a normal 55-year-old, I have no confidence whatsoever that I could have worked myself up to beat him. I’m not supposed to beat men.”
As for Riggs, he didn’t make it as tough on Billie Jean as he might have. He was sluggish and sweating from the start, and appeared to be exhausted by the middle of the first set. He had spent the previous weeks hustling opponents for money in Houston and generally forgetting to train. As his friend Lorne Kuhle said that night, Riggs “looked as if he realized the final exam was here, and he hadn’t studied for it.”
King vs. Riggs was undoubtedly a memento of its time. In 1973, the rock critic Lester Bangs described that year as one long “nervous breakdown” in the United States. The country was struggling with its identity as Watergate unfolded on TV, Vietnam drew to an ignominious close, and the revolutions of the 1960s worked their way into the mainstream. Two of those revolutions had been feminism and the war between the generations; King and Riggs acted both of them out in prime time.
But as you might expect from its mythical sobriquet, the Battle of the Sexes didn’t turn out to be just a one-night affair. It’s still being celebrated, and contested, four decades later. King was given the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009, and the sportswriter Frank DeFord called her “the most significant athlete of the 20th century.” In many ways, society really has come a long way since ’73, and BJK helped bring us here.
On the other hand, not all of the old fights have been forgotten. Today the idea of equal prize money for men and women is under assault again from some male pros. And during the U.S. Open, ESPN ran an article claiming that the Mother’s Day Massacre and the Battle of the Sexes were part of an elaborate scheme concocted by Riggs to pay off his debts to the Mob. Stories about how Riggs threw the match date back to the night of the match itself, and they’ve been debunked for just as long (in the video above, King talks about Riggs making bets with a friend of hers in the stands even as the match was being played). Does the fact that those stories keep coming up, in new ways, after 40 years indicate something about how men feel about the result? Does it show that we’ve never been able to fully accept it? The day after ESPN’s story, the conservative Washington Free Beacon ran a post with this headline:
SORRY LADIES: BOBBY RIGGS THREW HIS MATCH AGAINST BILLIE JEAN KING
(The best debunking of the latest Riggs-fix tale came from the New York Times’s Gail Collins. Read her make Swiss cheese of it here.)
What can’t be disputed is that Billie Jean King rose to the occasion at a moment when tennis became more than a game. The fact that it no longer seems in any way ridiculous for women to be paid to compete on the same playing fields as men is a testament to what she did that night.