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On This Date in Sports September 20, 1973: Battle of the Sexes

It was the ultimate Tennis sideshow at Astrodome as Bobby Riggs took on Billie Jean King in the “Battle of the Sexes”. Riggs, who mocked women’s tennis as illegitimate, was cast as the male chauvinist, while King was cast as defending the women’s liberation movement. A record crowd of 30,472 were in attendance, while 90 million watched at home as the event crossed into pop culture as Billie Jean King won in straight sets (6-4, 6-3,6-3).

As the 1970s began, tennis was reaching new heights in popularity thanks to the start of the open era, which had allowed professionals to finally play in the four biggest year events. This enabled stars like Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King to become the face of American tennis. With the Grand Slam events acting like a foundation, the Men’s professional tour grew, which created more prize money and fan interest. However, Women’s tennis was struggling to keep up in terms of money and support as there as society was not ready to accept women in sports.

Representing the negative attitudes towards Women’s Tennis was Bobby Riggs, who was born on February 25, 1918, in Los Angeles. In the years leading up to World War II, Riggs was the top tennis player in the world, winning at Wimbledon in 1939 and the U.S. Nationals in 1939 and 1941. The war would hurt Bobby Riggs' career immensely, as his career was put on hold when he enlisted in the Navy. After the war, Riggs became one of the top professional players in the world. At the same time, he became the ultimate tennis hustler, often illegally betting on himself. To help spur interest in tennis, Bobby Riggs regularly participated in one-on-one tours with the other top professional stars. Due to his accomplishments, Bobby Riggs was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.

Billie Jean King was born on November 23, 1945, to an athletic family. Her brother Randy Moffitt had a 12-year major league career. As the open era began, King was one of the top stars on the Women’s circuit, winning 12 grand slam titles. Winning Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year in 1972, Billie Jean King used her standing atop the women’s ranking as a platform to advocate gender equality in prize money on the tennis tour. This did not sit well with Bobby Riggs, who began taunting King to get her to her agree to a one-on-one match. Bobby Riggs openly ripped women’s Tennis as being inferior to men’s tennis, saying that Women’s only role is to serve their husbands and have children.

At first, Billie Jean King rejected Riggs' challenge. On May 13, 1973, in Ramona, California, Bobby Riggs found a taker in his challenge when he faced Australian star Margaret Court, the all-time leader in Grand Slam titles with 24. Riggs seemed to gain a psychological edge when he presented her with a bouquet of flowers before winning easily (6-2, 6-1) in what would be called the Mother’s Day Massacre.

After he embarrassed Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs continued to taunt Billie Jean King. Eventually, she agreed to a match as promoters promised a $100,000 winner-take-all all at the Astrodome, compared to the $5,000 prize money for his match with Court. With the match set, Bobby Riggs went back to his old tennis hustling days. This helped turn a little tennis match into a pop-culture event as he played the role of a male chauvinist to perfection, saying, “The best way to handle a woman is to keep them barefoot and pregnant”. Riggs' comments helped build interest in the event dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” as King became seen as playing for the respect and dignity of women everywhere.

With 90 million watching worldwide on television and 30,472 in attendance at the Houston Astrodome, “The Battle of the Sexes” took on the feel of a three-ring circus as Bobby Riggs entered wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket in a rickshaw pulled by several scantily clad women, while Billie Jean King was carried, like Cleopatra in a feather-adorned chair on the shoulders of a group of shirtless men. Riggs, who got $50,000 from Sugar Daddy, gave King a giant lollipop, while King gave him a piglet as a symbol of his chauvinism. Riggs began the match wearing his yellow jacket but removed it after the first games, realizing he was in for a much tougher match than he had against Margaret Court. King, who went in knowing how important a win would be, sought to learn from Court’s mistakes. Instead of trying to show off her power, she played drop shots and ran Riggs around the baseline to baseline. After trailing early in the first set, Billie Jean King took control, as the much older Riggs wore down quickly, losing all three sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3).

Billie Jean King’s win proved to be a hallmark moment in women’s sports as that, along with the IX passed one year earlier, inspired more young girls to get involved in athletic competition. After the match, she would become friends with Bobby Riggs, whose chauvinist act did more for women’s tennis than anyone could have ever imagined. In 1987, Billie Jean King joined her one-time rival in the Tennis Hall of Fame. The one-night event would become one of the iconic moments of the 70’s and the Women’s Liberation Movement. A few months after they net in Houston, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King reunited for a cameo on “The Odd Couple” as the two remained forever linked. Over the years, there have been several documentaries and movies made about the match, including a film starring Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean King that was in 2017.