1973: Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes

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Their match was black and white, but these two Southern Californians had much in common. (AP Photo)

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Thirty thousand people sat in Houston’s Astrodome on September 20, 1973, and watched Billie Jean King run Bobby Riggs ragged for three sets; 90 million more watched it on TV worldwide. No tennis match before or since has been seen by so many. Four decades later, it’s safe to say that no tennis match has been talked about as much, either.

As recently as last fall, there were still “new” reports emerging that Riggs had thrown the whole thing, an accusation that was made the night of the match, and many nights since. While the Battle of the Sexes was 1970s camp at its highest, something about it continues to resonate today. For many, it still seems impossible to believe that a woman could legitimately beat a man in tennis. Maybe that’s why King herself hasn't stopped reminding people that it really did happen way back when, just the way we remember.

Is there, after all this time, a new way to talk about tennis’ greatest, and at the same time most tongue-in-cheek, contribution to American culture? One aspect of the contest that is rarely pointed out is how similar King and Riggs were; they were less mortal enemies than they were feuding members of the same family, and their clash was as much about generations as it was genders.

King and Riggs both grew up middle class in Southern California; he was the son of a minister in Los Angeles, she the daughter of a fireman in Long Beach, and their families were churchgoing and tightly-knit. Neither had classic tennis builds; she’s 5’5”, and he was just a little taller at 5’7”. But this talkative twosome made up for that lack of height with their minds and their moxy. King and Riggs were two of the best and most pugnacious competitors in tennis history.

Just as important, both were motivated by the same man: Perry T. Jones, the czar of Southern California tennis, who ran his fiefdom from an office at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Jones liked his players long, lean, well-dressed, and well-mannered—Ellsworth Vines and Jack Kramer, each of whom trained at his club, were the exemplars of the California "big game." King and Riggs measured up to Jones’ standard in none of those categories, and he let them know it. Their reactions to him, while they came two decades apart, were remarkably similar.

“Jones was a bit of snob,” Riggs wrote in his autobiography, “who was more concerned about a youngster’s family background and how he dressed than about his tennis ability. I was short...my tennis gear sometimes needed laundering, and I always spoke up to Jones, letting him know how I felt about discrimination against kids like myself.”

In 1935, Riggs won the U.S. junior championship; afterward, he was promised a trip to play at Wimbledon, only to have Jones nix it. “It was clear to me,” Riggs wrote, “that Jones and his cronies had changed their minds about allowing the U.S. junior champion to play at Wimbledon when they found out his name was Bobby Riggs.”

Little Bobby would have his revenge four years later, when, finally allowed onto the grounds at the All England Club, he would pull off a rare triple, winning the titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

By 1954, two decades and a world war had come and gone, but as an 11-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt could attest, Perry Jones hadn’t changed much. That year she came to a junior tournament wearing a blouse and shorts, handmade by her mother, only to have Jones refuse to allow her into a group photograph with her fellow players—in his world, girls wore dresses. King never forgot the slight, or the lack of support, monetarily and otherwise, from Jones and his fellow amateur tennis officials.

“The trouble with being a prospect, female,” King wrote in her autobiography, “growing up in Southern California, was that the Southern California Tennis Association was a regular male chauvinist den. That kind of thinking started with Perry Jones....In Southern California, the boys invariably got all the breaks.” Was it a coincidence that the Battle of the Sexes was played smack in the middle of the tournament that Jones had once run at the L.A. Tennis Club, the Pacific Southwest Open?

King would prove Jones and his cronies wrong by becoming No. 1 in the world; in 1967, she matched Riggs’ accomplishment of ’39 by sweeping the singles, doubles, and mixed at Wimbledon. Both King and Riggs were happy to leave the safe, hypocritical amateur game behind and join the pro tours, when that was still a risky proposition.

Bobby and Billie Jean, of course, ended up on opposite sides of the feminist divide in the 70s; she’ll forever be known as a progressive hero, he’ll forever be known as the prince of the male chauvinist pigs, a winking buffoon who reveled in his role as the villain in this drama. “I’m like a fire hose when the alarm goes off in a battle against a woman,” was just one of his many varieties of farcical trash talk. He and King were, as much as anything, products of their very different eras. Riggs came of age in the Great Depression and did a stint in World War II. King, 26 years younger, came of age during the Vietnam era and had her life upended by the revolutions of the 60s.

The Battle of the Sexes continues to resonate because the issues surrounding it—gender and pay equity—are still with us today, in and out of tennis. But part of its appeal at the time was how much fun the talkative twosome seemed to be having at the center of it all (when King wasn’t about to be sick from nerves, that is). They could make each other laugh, and they continued to make each other laugh in the years afterward. King called Riggs the day before he died, of prostate cancer, in 1995. The last thing she told Riggs, she said, was "I love you."

Even into the early 80s, Billie Jean said that Bobby was still trying to set up a rematch. Her answer was always no, but she had to admire his persistence.

“I love him,” she said. “Bobby never quits.”

Forty years after her most important victory, it’s clear that was one more thing Bobby and Billie Jean had in common.

 

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