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The Battle of the Sexes was a spectacle—and a match, too: How Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs
How, 48 years ago today, did King intend to topple the man who had taken only 57 minutes to destroy her greatest rival, Margaret Court?
Published Sep 20, 2021
WATCH: An interview with Billie Jean King on Tennis Channel Live
No tennis match was ever fraught with more symbolism than the September 20, 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” clash between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. As the very name of this one-off event implied, King-Riggs tilted on contrast. Woman versus man. The 29-year-old King taking on the 55-year-old Riggs. King, a contemporary competitor and crusader; Riggs, past his prime, hungry yet again for the spotlight. The metaphoric significance was powerful and genuine. As King writes in her newly released autobiography, All In, “The roles men and women occupied were in flux, but men still had the upper hand and the power.” Such was the world of 1973 that a tennis match had the potential to propel social change.
But what about the battle inside the lines? How did King intend to topple the man who had taken only 57 minutes to destroy her greatest rival, Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1? And what was Riggs’ plan for vanquishing King?
Interestingly, for all the contrasts trotted out to promote the match, King and Riggs had much in common when it came to tennis. They’d each sharpened their styles on the public courts of tennis-rich Southern California, along the way becoming versatile and nimble all-court players. One of King’s mentors, Alice Marble, had partnered with Riggs to win the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1939. King and Riggs also bore the scar of being underestimated by Southern California’s haughty tennis czar, Perry Jones, a slight that likely further fueled their motivation to excel. Most notably, each was a superb tactician, attuned to everything from an opponent’s grips and strokes, to serve and return tendencies, passing shot strengths and weaknesses, movement patterns and factors as slight but revealing as a ready position and how the racquet was held in between points. “Billie Jean knew how to make you hit the shot you didn’t want to hit,” said Martina Navratilova. That comment was equally applicable to Riggs.
In the weeks leading up to his match with Court, Riggs trained diligently, both off the court with a rigorous fitness regimen, and on it with many practice matches. Versus Court, he was razor-sharp, thoroughly confounding the great Australian with a variety of spins and paces.
“I didn’t know what game he was playing,” Court wrote in her 2016 autobiography, “but it wasn’t tennis as I knew it.” Court also conceded that, “In treating Riggs with contempt and not affording him the respect I would any opponent, I blundered.”
But after so handily beating Court, Riggs miscued with King. Caught up in his resurrection as a public personality in the technicolor ‘70s, Riggs neglected to practice with much rigor, instead squandering his preparation time with various on-court hustles and publicity opportunities. All In cites Riggs’ awareness of this too: “I’m overconfident and undertrained,” Riggs told New York Magazine prior to the match. “I’m completely ridiculous.”
King took the opposite approach as she prepared to play the first best-of-five sets match of her career. In September, she hunkered down in Hilton Head, S.C. and practiced extensively with Pete Collins, a local teaching pro. Well aware of Riggs’ superb lob, King had Collins feed her hundreds of overheads a day. King also gained tactical advice from her longstanding coach, Frank Brennan, as well as insights from instructional guru Dennis Van der Meer, who’d been courtside with Court versus Riggs. Each day, King strengthened her abdomen with sit-ups and her legs with extension exercises. Keen to cover every possible contingency, King even began staying up later at night so she would be at her peak for the evening encounter versus Riggs.
Then there was the matter of strategy. In the hands of a tactical genius like King, a game plan is multi-layered. You start off with a series of sequences that compromise the opponent. From there, as more data emerges, it’s possible to diversify the arsenal. Or, as King has often said, the ball tells you what to do.
But as the match began, just like a quarterback sensing a shift at the line of scrimmage, King had a sudden epiphany. As King writes in All In, “something inside told me to make a last-minute change of strategy. I wouldn’t charge into the match and serve and volley on almost every point as Bobby and everyone else expected. I was going to run him around for five points and see what happened.”
As the first set unfolded, Riggs indeed proved sluggish—slow, unable to hurt King. This in turn allowed her to methodically mix variety and aggression.
Meanwhile, Riggs found himself in a rare position: At the mercy of a more tactically savvy opponent. After King had won the first set 6-4, Riggs told ABC’s courtside reporter, Frank Gifford, “She’s making a lot of wonderful volleys, and I missed a lot of first serves . . . She’s playing better than I am right now.” Aiding King’s cause was that she was repeatedly putting away Riggs’ legendary lobs.
A match is a saga, a stream of plot twists. Both King and Riggs had long known this, but as the second set got underway, the more physically and mentally fit King was the one paying better attention. “I’m taking in information and processing,” King recalled. “Bobby is showing me that he can’t hit over the ball to generate much topspin and he has no speed, but he’s still got some fight in him.” Increasingly aware of where she could comfortably hit the ball, King’s aggression accelerated. Ahead 5-3, she served out the second set at love.
As the third set began, Riggs at last realized it was better to hit to King’s weaker forehand. But by this stage, King was dialed-in and Riggs too far behind. With King up 4-2, Riggs’ hand began to cramp. He requested a ten-minute injury timeout. King too started to cramp, a slight pain in her left calf. Soon, Riggs served at 3-5. In a game that lasted more than 15 minutes, King closed out the match on her third match point. “She did it when she had to,” said Riggs. “She made the shots. I wasn’t ready for a Billie Jean like that.”
For perhaps the only time in his career, Riggs had been tactically outmaneuvered. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden liked to say, “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”