Our year-long story of the WTA Tour's 50th anniversary continues with Chapter 2: Red Hot Women's Tennis (Watch our feature video above.)

For Chapter 1, Thank You, Gladys, click here.

In the world of sports, many a year goes by when the games and the athletes are only tangentially connected to broader social occurrences.

Then there’s 1973, a watershed year, when the growth of women’s tennis and a series of revolutionary societal shifts marched in seemingly perfect lockstep.

In less than three years, women’s professional tennis had grown significantly. Most prominent was the Virginia Slims Circuit. What had begun in the fall 1970 with two events and a combined purse of $15,700 had by 1973 grown into a juggernaut offering $780,000 in prize money. So successful was women’s pro tennis that there was also a rival tour run by the USLTA (as the USTA was known then) that featured such rising stars as Chrissie Evert and Evonne Goolagong.


Concurrently, all through America, the women’s liberation movement was kicking into high gear.

“For women, 1970-’74 were major years of change,” said historian Susan Ware, author of the book, Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. “That social movement was on its own trajectory, coming out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.”

December 1971 had marked the debut of Ms. magazine. This came at a time when simply using the term “Ms.” was considered revolutionary (not until 1986 did the New York Times deploy it). Founded by feminist leader Gloria Steinem, the first issue of the magazine featured a cover illustration of the iconic cartoon character, Wonder Woman. An interesting tennis connection was that, back in the 1940s, one of the editors of Wonder Woman was 1939 the world’s No. 1 tennis player, Alice Marble.

The next year came the passage of Title IX, a landmark piece of legislation (that King had testified for) which rapidly made it possible for more women to earn college athletic scholarships. Nineteen seventy-two also saw Congress pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a bill quickly ratified by 35 of the 38 states required to make it the law of the land. Several months later, in January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized abortion nationwide.

“Women’s professional tennis was very lucky in that it had its breakout moment in the early ‘70s,” said Ware. “That was a transitional moment in the wider sports universe.”


Chris Evert warms up for her final against Evonne Goolagong in the Miami Beach-Garner Bank USLTA tournament in April 1973.

Chris Evert warms up for her final against Evonne Goolagong in the Miami Beach-Garner Bank USLTA tournament in April 1973.

But the outcome of what such players as King, Evert, Goolagong and many more were doing had serious social implications. As scholar Beth Bailey wrote in the book America in the ‘70s, “For many Americans, the crux of the problem was that liberation freed women to compete with men and, in so doing, upset what they believed was the proper relationship between the sexes.”

Into the tennis world came a New York Times reporter named Grace Lichtenstein. Approached by a publisher to write a book about the women’s tennis tour, Lichtenstein had entered the kind of subculture every writer lives for: engaging personalities, tremendous accessibility, deeper social meaning. In June, just prior to Wimbledon, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was formed. Several weeks later, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to offer equal prize money.

“I had no idea that 1973 would be such a cataclysmic year in women’s tennis,” Lichtenstein recently told me. “That year represented the real emergence of professional women athletes.” Fittingly, the title of Lichtenstein’s book was borrowed from the longstanding Virginia Slims advertising tagline: A Long Way, Baby.

And then there was 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a past champion from the 1930s and ‘40s, who also wrote a book with a suitable title: Court Hustler. “Bobby didn’t know Gloria Steinem from a go-go girl,” wrote Selena Roberts in the book, A Necessary Spectacle.

But Riggs was a first-rate promoter and even better competitor. Over the course of that tumultuous 1973, Riggs played a pair of challenge matches versus the two best women’s tennis players in the world. In May, there came what was dubbed “The Mother’s Day Massacre,” Riggs dropping just three games in a win over Margaret Court—a player who in 1973 took the title at three Grand Slam events. In the wake of Court’s defeat, King agreed to play Riggs in September.


King versus Riggs, said Ware, “captured this moment where people were talking about women’s issues, having conversations and debates about what women could do and couldn’t do.” Banks were able to deny credit cards to unmarried women. Employers could fire a women once she became a pregnant. All this would change in the ‘70s. Other topics were also in play. Should girls be allowed to play Little League Baseball? How would it work for female journalists to cover sports? How were female lawyers expected to conduct themselves in the court room? How would a man take orders from a female boss?

Given all this tumult around gender roles, it was fitting indeed that the King-Riggs match was dubbed, “The Battle of the Sexes,” set to take place in Houston’s Astrodome and air on that era’s outlier sports network, ABC. By the late ‘60s, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” had become renowned for its eclectic offerings, from skiing to gymnastics to boxing. Around that same time, the Olympic Games, also aired then on ABC, blossomed into a must-see viewing experience. In 1970, ABC introduced “Monday Night Football,” yet another new form of programming that blended raw athletic effort with entertainment. So why not bring tennis into the mix?

“You’ve got these two media-savvy and media-attractive people,” said Ware. “Bobby Riggs spouting all these things about women. Billie Jean King was making the case not just for women’s sports, but for feminism.”


King versus Riggs “captured this moment where people were talking about women’s issues, having conversations and debates about what women could do and couldn’t do.”

King versus Riggs “captured this moment where people were talking about women’s issues, having conversations and debates about what women could do and couldn’t do.”

All the hoopla of King-Riggs helped bring tennis to the masses in so many of the ways King had long desired. In came King, carried onto the court on feathered litter. There was Riggs on a rickshaw. “To the TV viewers,” wrote Roberts, “the camera hovering high in the Astrodome rafters made the court appear squat and misshapen – a reflection of a fun-house mirror.” But again, King’s mission was dead serious: prove the legitimacy of women’s tennis—and by extension, emphatically showcase why women deserved to be treated as equals.

On September 20, 1973, in front of a record 30,492 spectators and 90 million viewers, King beat Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Naturally, Lichtenstein was there too. She and her fellow journalist, future filmmaker Nora Ephron, gathered a pot of money with other female journalists and bet $500 on the match with Riggs (he was an 8 to 5 favorite).

As the post-match press conference began, King looked at Lichtenstein: “Didya win a lot of money, Grace?”

Wrote Lichtenstein in her book, “The point was that when the chips were down, a twenty-nine-year-old woman athlete, Billie Jean King Superstar, had hung tough. I was so happy I wanted to cry.”

King’s triumph over Riggs was the culmination of an incredible 1973—a year like none in tennis, before or since.