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Decades before the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs spun from the same cloth
For all that divided King and Riggs that evening, the two occupied significant common ground, their paths profoundly crystallized at the same iconic Los Angeles tennis facility.
Published Sep 20, 2023
This was the tennis version of the Super Bowl. Tracy Austin
The date was September 20, 1973. The setting: the Houston Astrodome, then one of the world’s preeminent entertainment venues. That evening, it was filled with 30,492 men and women, gathered to watch 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs square off in the “Battle of the Sexes.” Worldwide, an estimated 90 million people watched it on television.
There was King, in a green and blue dress that included sequins and rhinestones, brought to the court like Cleopatra on an Egyptian litter, adorned with red and orange feathers. Riggs, trotted out in a rickshaw, wore a yellow and red jacket bearing the name of a confection, “Sugar Daddy.” Amid so much color and hyperbole, each pursued their respective destinies. King was the crusader, keen to make a social statement. Riggs was the hustler, eager to occupy the limelight.
Yet for all that divided King and Riggs that evening, the two occupied significant common ground, their paths profoundly crystallized at the same iconic Los Angeles tennis facility, and both harshly motivated by a man who worked there for decades. Were that man to see what King and Riggs were up to in Houston that night, he’d be repulsed at how his beloved amateur sport had taken such a turn towards the vulgar world of commercialism. But that man, a Hall of Famer named Perry Jones, had died three years nearly prior to the day of the King-Riggs match.
Meet the Czar of Tennis
From 1930 until his death 40 years later, Jones ran the Southern California Tennis Association, the USLTA (what the USTA was called until 1975) section where Riggs and King both grew up. Jones’ base was the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). In those pre-Open years prior to 1968, venues such as the LATC, the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hill, Northern California’s Berkeley Tennis Club, and others were the regional castles of tennis’ feudalistic culture. These were the sites of many prominent tournaments and where ambitious youngsters hoped to be granted playing privileges so they could sharpen their skills around better players.
Of all those citadels, the LATC had by far the most outstanding players. There being hardly an indoor court to be found on the planet, sun-dappled Southern Californians could play tennis more frequently than anyone else in the world. Opened in 1920, the LATC instantly became the preeminent pipeline for decades of titans, including Hall of Famers Ellsworth Vines, Gene Mako, Riggs, Jack Kramer, Ted Schroeder, Pancho Gonzales, Dennis Ralston and Stan Smith. Women Hall of Famers who’d made a mark there during tournaments included Alice Marble, Pauline Betz, Louise Brough, Maureen Connolly and, two of King’s touchstones, a mentor in Darlene Hard and an inspiration in Althea Gibson.
Southern California also had several prominent instructors, including Dick Skeen (Kramer, Betz, Brough and dozens more), as well as Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, who greatly aided Marble, Riggs, Betz and Connolly. Marble for a time also worked with the young Billie Jean.
“It was an unbelievable place to be around the game,” said King. “The very best in the world, right there in front of me at places like the LA Tennis Club. I just took in all of it.”
But all roads in the Southern California tennis community led to Jones, who ruled the section in such an autocratic way that he was dubbed “The Czar.” Any Southern California player who wanted to play national tournaments, including the U.S. Nationals (which in ‘68 became the US Open), had to be vetted by Jones. Riggs in the ‘30s and King in the ‘50s had only begrudgingly earned his approval.
Once Upon A Time Near Hollywood
Located in Hancock Park, an elegant Los Angeles neighborhood east of Hollywood and west of downtown, the LATC and its 17 courts hummed with first-rate tennis. The University of Southern California (USC), usually the top college team in the country, practiced and played its matches there. This was when college tennis players ranked among the best in the world. As just one example, two Trojans, Dennis Ralston and Rafael Osuna, won the 1960 Wimbledon doubles title before the start of their first year on the team. Jones had also served as Davis Cup captain, America’s 1958 championship squad led by another USC star, Alex Olmedo.
Every September, just after the U.S. Championships, the LATC hosted the Jones-run Pacific Southwest Championships, then the second-most important event in the U.S. The “Southwest” was a highlight of the Los Angeles social scene, where men came to watch the tennis in jackets and women always wore dresses.
“It was the place to see and be seen,” said Ann “Biddy” Liebig, who first joined the LATC as a junior member in 1948 and would one year at the tournament play Connolly.
Besides hosting the Pacific Southwest and the prestigious Southern California Championships, all year long the LATC saw a steady stream of amateur and pro greats surface to practice and pay their respects to Jones.
“On a given day it was possible to come to the club and see five of the best ten players in the world,” said Tim Carr, a junior member from 1956 to 1963 who subsequently lettered on USC’s ’63 championship team. Around such excellent tennis, all ships rose. “If you couldn’t become a good player there, you couldn’t become a good player anywhere,” said Bruce Campbell, who first joined the LATC as a ten-year-old in 1950 and went on to play for a pair NCAA title squads at UCLA.
Bobby and Billie Each Wanted the Same Thing
Riggs and King both craved that kind of dynamic, competitive environment. Growing up a few miles east of the club in the working-class neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, Riggs was already playing matches for dollars, tennis balls and other rewards when, at the age of 12, he met an LATC member named Esther Bartosh. She further refined his strokes and helped him earn those precious playing privileges.
Even though Riggs was a highly ranked junior, Jones cared little for him. As Riggs wrote in his autobiography, Court Hustler, “I was short—five feet seven and one-half inches when I stopped growing—my tennis gear sometimes needed laundering, and I always spoke up to Jones.”
Jones favored taller, more clean-cut boys such as Joe Hunt, Ted Schroeder and Jack Kramer. While the young Riggs was a steady baseliner, those three played the new serve-and-volley style, a tactic extensively honed at the LATC dubbed “The Big Game” that in the 1940s would become a dominant playing style. Even after Riggs had won major titles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills and become a great volleyer, he remained underestimated by Jones.
Another factor was that Riggs was tennis’ consummate hustler, a perfect fit for a club that teemed with what its members called “action.”—“You just about always played for something,” said Carr. It might have been as small a sum as the balls, a soda, or a couple of bucks. These games were marked by the same intensity brought to the tennis.
More than 50 years later, Tom Edlefsen, a USC player who in 1969 was ranked No. 7 in the country, vividly recalls Gonzales getting so angry at losing a backgammon game to Ralston that he threw his chocolate milkshake against the wall. Long after his youthful days there, Riggs for decades would visit the LATC and rake up dollars from both new and familiar marks.
Jones turned a blind eye towards such crude, commercial matters. To some degree, this was the same attitude that made Jones resist any effort to make tennis an Open sport, a cause that his prize prodigy, Kramer, zealously began to advocate for in the 1940s.
Haughty and exclusionary as Jones was—cultural diversity was scarcely part of his sensibility—he rigorously enforced and took pride in the way his Southern California tennis players conducted themselves. Sportsmanship on the court and good manners off it were paramount. Boys were expected to keep their hair short and wear polished shoes and crisp, white tennis attire. And, as young Billie Jean learned the hard way, Jones had rules girls must follow too.
Just as Riggs was not one of Jones’ prized boys, Miss Moffitt was not one of his preferred young ladies.
Birth of a Crusader
In 1955, playing a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club for the first time, 11-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt (she married Larry King in 1965) was told to join all the other participants for a group photo. But moments before it was to be taken, Jones issued a loud shout. As King wrote in her 2021 autobiography, All In, he said, “You! Little girl! Out! You can’t be in the picture wearing shorts. You need a skirt or dress.”
That moment launched Billie Jean’s desire to make tennis more inclusive. It also marked the start of a rocky relationship with Jones. Just as Riggs was not one of Jones’ prized boys, Miss Moffitt was not one of his preferred young ladies. Jones repeatedly made it difficult for her to thrive, be it altering the terms by which she could go to the nationals, to refusing to provide the expenses that were usually given to other juniors. Billie Jean was also frustrated that while such greats as Kramer and Gonzales frequently gave coaching tips to boys like Ralston at the LATC, they never offered to help girls. So instead, Billie Jean would station herself a few discreet feet away and eavesdrop.
And yet, difficult as it was for each to deal with Jones and certain exclusionary aspects of the LATC, both Bobby and Billie Jean knew that the club was as critical an element in their tennis education as MIT would be for an ambitious scientist. Decades before the Internet, in an era when tennis was on TV scarcely a few minutes a year, the only way to learn from the best was to see them in-person at places like the LATC. Both were zealous students of the game, as tactically adroit as anyone who ever picked up a racquet. If not for the LATC, gaining such knowledge would have been far more difficult.
Venus. Serena. Naomi. Maria.
The WTA's crossover icons are on a first-name basis.
Show Us The Money
Fast-forward to the summer of 1970. The staid LATC was in the middle of tennis’ revolution. Much to Jones’ chagrin and Kramer’s delight, tennis had at last gone Open and money began to pour into the sport. King by then had become No. 1 in the world and won five major singles titles, including a three-peat at Wimbledon from ’66-’68. In August 1970, word surfaced that the Pacific Southwest Open—now run by Kramer—was offering the men eight times more prize money. Led by World Tennis magazine founder-publisher Gladys Heldman, King and eight other women (“The Original Nine”) opted to boycott the L.A. tournament and instead play their own event in Houston. Out of that was born a full-fledged tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit. In June 1973, King led the charge to create the WTA. Nothing could stop this persistent crusader.
At the same time, nothing deterred Bobby Riggs from seeking action. Riggs lived for the chance to make a bet and earn a victory. Seeing women’s tennis take off in the early ‘70s, the 50-something Riggs smelled a new opportunity. At the 1971 US Open, he asked King to play him in a high-stakes challenge match. She declined, citing her strong focus on making the new tour a success.
One vivid example came immediately after that year’s US Open, when, thanks to Kramer offering more money, King returned to the LATC to compete in the Pacific Southwest Open. But, in one of the more complicated events of King’s career, a series of disputes over line calls led to her and fellow “Original Nine” member Rosie Casals mutually defaulting at 6-all in the first set of the final.
“The crowd booed us on our way off and we deserved it,” wrote King.
From L.A. to Houston
It’s amazing how so much from the LATC surfaced at the “Battle of the Sexes.” The female analyst was Casals, King’s close friend, rival, and doubles partner. ABC’s first choice for male analyst was Kramer, Riggs’ lifelong friend, one-time rival, and occasional business partner. But King objected, saying she wouldn’t play the match were Kramer to enter the broadcast booth. At the last minute, ABC settled on Gene Scott, a fine player from the East Coast.
The match happened to be played the same week as the Pacific Southwest Open. A 19-inch black-and-white TV was wheeled into the men’s locker room. According to Larry Tubelle, then the club’s tennis director, roughly 25 to 30 people wedged into the club’s bar to watch on another small TV. Many of the viewers were Riggs’ buddies. Tubelle took a straw poll, asking anyone who thought King would win to raise a hand. The only one was Arthur Ashe, an honorary LATC member who’d earlier in the day lost to Raul Ramirez, a recent USC star.
As Ashe wrote in his book Portrait in Motion, “as soon as I saw Billie Jean play that first game I knew she had it. There was no choke there.”
Making a bet as the match began and another as it continued, Ashe that evening ended up winning $80 following King’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory. As the LATC had always proven, there was nothing wrong with a little action.