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TBT: The Mother’s Day Massacre—Bobby Riggs over Margaret Court
Seeking a spotlight, the 50-something Riggs set his sights on women’s tennis, and took on Court in the first Battle of the Sexes.
Published May 13, 2021
Bobby Riggs had been a great champion in the 1930s and ‘40s, winner at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, later the world’s best pro. In the early ‘70s, long after Riggs’ glory days, tennis was booming and he craved what people in his circles called “the action”—the hustle, the money, the glory.
Seeking a spotlight, the 50-something Riggs set his sights on women’s tennis, initially issuing a challenge to the player he thought was the world’s best, Billie Jean King. Well aware that there was little upside for her in such a battle—and also then working round-the-clock to promote the fledgling Virginia Slims Circuit—King declined.
But King’s biggest rival, Margaret Court, accepted Riggs’ offer. Court was guaranteed $5,000 and another $5,000 if she won. As Court wrote in her autobiography, “I was nobody’s idea of a woman’s libber and I couldn’t have cared less when he said he was a male chauvinist pig, but it rubbed my feathers the wrong way when he not only lampooned my sport but proclaimed Billie Jean the best player in the world when I’d beaten her many more times than she’d beaten me. The smart thing would have been to ignore Riggs’ rantings, but no, I offered to take him on. The match would be a lot of fun, an inconsequential novelty, before I geared up for the French Open and Wimbledon.”
The match was played on May 13, 1973—Mother’s Day—at San Vicente Country Club, a new housing development located 38 miles northeast of San Diego. As recently as two years prior, tennis was so small that likely no more than 500 attendees would have seen this match. But now, with the sport’s popularity skyrocketing, it was aired on CBS, which also kicked in $10,000 for Court and $7,500 for Riggs.
In the days leading up to the match, Riggs created a carnival atmosphere, complete with frequent proclamations about where a woman’s place should be, lively practice sessions and oodles of photo opportunities, all staged in front of dozens of media, including representatives from the New York Times, Associated Press, and Sports Illustrated. “I have nothing to lose,” said Riggs, “whereas Margaret is playing not only for the honor of women’s tennis, but motherhood itself.” Said King, “If Margaret loses, we’re in trouble. I’ll have to challenge him myself.”
Court, never one to make statements with anything other than her racquet, by that stage had won 89 of her last 92 matches. She later admitted that all the hoopla put her on edge – everything from the crush of inquisitive reporters to the presence of such celebrities as actor John Wayne, singer Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand, the latter on hand to sing “I Am Woman” prior to the match.
Inconsequential novelty? Far from it. Wrote Court, “In treating Riggs with contempt and not affording him the respect I would any opponent, I blundered.”
It being Mother’s Day, Riggs entered the court holding a bouquet of flowers that he kindly handed to Court. Riggs’ penchant for publicity stunts put him in a large group of familiar carnival barkers. But when it came to tennis acumen, scarcely a soul was in his league. Riggs had carefully studied Court, and concocted a game plan he knew would compel her to unravel, one strand at a time.
On the first point of the match, Riggs hit a slow slice serve so wide that Court hit it two feet to the right of the alley. From there, Riggs carved a forehand down-the-line to Court’s backhand. Clearly tight, Court sliced it into the net. Like a shark, Riggs instantly smelled blood.
That pattern was set. Riggs varied spin, pace and placement, playing what he’d dubbed “air-tight tennis.” Court, aware that her best chance was to overpower Riggs, was too nervous to gain traction in just about every rally. “I was totally unprepared for what he offered,” wrote Court. “His only tactic seemed to be to get the ball back over the net as eccentrically as possible and from time to time lob the ball high and into the sun.” Court also admitted that, “I played like I was under sedation.”
In just 57 minutes, Riggs won, 6-2, 6-1.
Meanwhile, flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles, Billie Jean King landed in Honolulu, stuffed a few quarters into an airport TV set (this was how it went in 1973), heard the shocking news and knew there was no turning back Riggs’ challenge. “I had to play him,” she said. For Court, a match with Riggs was a brief exhibition. For King, it turned into a crusade.
For now, though, on this Mother’s Day, the moment belonged to Riggs. He was featured on the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated. The headline: “Never Bet Against This Man.”