The legendary match that changed the attitude to women’s tennis
How the great Billie Jean King punished “sexist number one.”
“I underestimated you, baby,” were the words with which former Wimbledon winner Bobby Riggs greeted famous tennis player Billie Jean King after their face-to-face match on September 20, 1973, in the American city of Houston. Bobby Riggs, a two-time winner of the U.S. Open (now the US Open), had already finished his career and was organizing sports shows, only occasionally taking part in veteran tournaments.
King chose him for a reason: He demanded to meet with her, made caustic comments about women’s tennis and, in an interview, declared himself “sexist number one. “I know two places where a woman can really be proficient – in bed and in the kitchen. Exactly in that order. What do I say about tennis? Women play at about 25 percent of the capabilities of men. So there has to be a corresponding difference in prize money, too,” Riggs said.
He often said, “I’m ready to prove my superiority on the court against any female tennis player.”
And he finally got that opportunity.
Replacing Billie Jean King
Bobby Riggs had been trying to get a match with Billie Jean King since the early 1970s. However, the tennis player ignored the eccentric and wordy opponent’s attacks. She didn’t take Riggs’ antics seriously as a threat to professional women’s tennis.
“The best women play like 15-year-old boys, or like 55-year-old men, or worse,” Riggs explained King’s rejection to the press.
A couple of years later, several businessmen offered $5,000 to the winner of a man-woman tennis match. Riggs jumped at the idea and added another $5,000 from his own pocket to that amount, again challenging King.
He even booked a radio ad stating that former champion and player, Bobby Riggs, claimed that women’s tennis “stinks.” He challenges King to a match and expects a response within 48 hours.
“The best way to deal with women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot all the time,” Riggs allowed himself another lashing out.
Billie Jean King once again let his words pass her lips. But they hurt Australian tennis player Margaret Court. She was number one in women’s tennis and could not understand why Riggs insisted on meeting Billie Jean rather than the best player at the time.
In addition, Cort herself disliked her opponent. Margaret hated the way King publicly announced her abortion in 1971, even more outraged by the fact that King had been caught having an intimate relationship with her assistant while still married.
All this accumulated negativity is what led her to publicly accept Bobby Riggs’ challenge.
Mother’s Day Massacre
After making arrangements for the meeting, Riggs began to methodically prepare for it. He went on a diet designed for him by Hollywood’s leading nutritionist, Reo Blair, began working out several hours a day. Specially attended tournaments where Cort appeared, studying her game in detail, and made a plan for how best to act against her on the court.
Margaret, on the other hand, regarded her opponent with underestimation. She only saw him as a “pathetic, aging ex-champion” with sexist tendencies. She told reporters in interviews that she had beaten “stronger men than Bobby” in training.
All this led her to disaster
The game was held in Ramona (San Diego County, California) on March 13, 1973 (Mother’s Day in the USA. – Note: SE). More than 3,000 spectators were in the stands. The television audience for the CBS broadcast was estimated at 30 million people.
From the very beginning of the game, it turned out that Rigss’ tactics were correct: short serves and a constant alternation of shortcuts and candles under the back line quickly threw Kort off balance.
The meeting lasted only 57 minutes. And ended with a humiliating score of 1-6, 2-6. This game went down in the history of world tennis as the “Mother’s Day Massacre”.
After the match, Margaret admitted to reporters that she had not expected her opponent to be so quick: “We girls don’t play like that. This statement, in turn, surprised Riggs, who had told almost every reporter before the match about his chosen tactic.
But this victory boosted his confidence in his abilities, so he went straight back to his old theme. He said all that was left now was to beat Billie Jean King, and then he would prove to the world that women’s tennis was worthless.
“I’m ready to play her on dirt, grass, parquet, concrete, marble or roller skates. I’m an expert on women now,” Riggs quipped.
Battle of the Sexes
This time Jean King felt she had no right to refuse. “It could have set all women’s tennis back 50 years. I wasn’t interested in beating a 55-year-old older man. I just wanted to prove that women’s tennis is really serious,” the tennis player later recalled her motivation.
After King agreed to the match with Riggs, it was organized by Jerry Perencio, the sports entrepreneur who had organized the legendary “Fight of the Century” between boxers Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.
Interest in the tennis bout was enormous. King set one condition of principle – the fees for the athletes had to be the same. By agreement with the sponsors, each of the participants received $150,000, and the winner received another $100,000.
Riggs continued to make provocative statements to the press. A week after the Wimbledon tournament, which King won for the fifth time in his career, he announced at a joint press conference that he would like women to cook and take care of children, not to participate in competitions with men.
Meanwhile, Bobby himself abandoned diligent training and refused to face professional players on the court. Instead, he offered random people from the street to play with him, offering him $500 if he won.
This “training” culminated in an exhibition set with Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King. Riggs gave King a four-game lead, put on galoshes and placed chairs on his side of the court, yet won six games in a row.
Riggs, in short bursts between constant commercials, never tired of boasting, “You know why she’s going to lose? Women don’t have the mental toughness. They just can’t compete with men.”
At one pre-match conference, Riggs even promised to jump off a bridge if he lost.
The course of the game
The match took place on September 20, 1973, at an arena in Houston, Texas. It drew 30,472 spectators and became the most massive tennis event in history for many years. The prime-time broadcast was broadcast to 36 countries with an audience of nearly 90 million television viewers.
Unlike the match against Court, the encounter with King had to go all the way to victory in three sets. On the one hand, it gave ABC television a chance to sell more advertising time, and on the other, it helped King prove that female tennis players can handle the same workload as men.
The appearance of the match participants in the stadium was furnished with pomp. King appeared on the court as Cleopatra: she was carried out on a golden throne decorated with feathers. King’s palanquin-like form was carried into the arena by toga-clad members of the Rice University men’s track and field team.
Then Riggs appeared on the court. Bobby, dressed in a yellow jacket advertising Sugar Daddy lollipops, was taken out in a rickshaw by half-dressed young women, who the press immediately dubbed “Bobby’s busty girlfriends.”
Riggs himself was holding a giant lollipop on a stick that King had given him before the match. In return, she presented him with a live piglet as a symbol of the chauvinist pig, as she called Riggs. To emphasize the symbolism of the gift, King called the piggy by his opponent’s full name, Robert Larimore Riggs.
Despite his apparent determination, Bobby was completely unprepared for the match. Besides, he was almost twice his opponent’s age. His hands immediately began to cramp. Riggs was still suffering from inflammation of his elbow, and the medication he had been prescribed gave him an upset stomach. Right before the game, he took a massive dose of amphetamine. Billie Jean, on the other hand, was in good physical condition, having recovered quite well from the flu she suffered in early August and an allergic reaction to the penicillin prescribed for her afterward.
Riggs was also deprived of another trump card she had used in a past successful match against Cort. Riggs preferred a slow surface that suited his tactics better, but in determining the type of surface on which to meet, King insisted on a fast court.
The tricks Riggs used with Margaret did not work here: King began to dominate from the first draws. She stuck to her tactics all three games to win the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
King didn’t really celebrate the win. “I don’t feel like it’s a big athletic achievement,” she stated. – Just psychologically and emotionally, this win played a big role. I knew I had to provide a springboard for equality for women in sports.”
“Billie Jean was too good, too fast. Apparently, now I’m the greatest wimp of all time,” Riggs said after the match.
After the match
At the press conference, Riggs paid a lot of compliments to King’s game and demanded a rematch.
King refused to fight again. An annoyed Riggs was even going to sue, claiming that the rematch was in the contract. But while he was talking to the press and making plans, the retention period was up, and the law firm that had been involved in the contract destroyed all the documents.
Immediately after the game, rumors swirled that the tennis player had lost to King on purpose. The main argument was that all singles matches between men and women, both before and after 1973, had ended in victories for the men. The exception was a couple of games in which the woman was given a handicap.
And in 2013, ESPN published an investigation claiming that Riggs’ defeat was due to the need to pay back money he owed the mob. For one thing, the evidence against this was that Riggs had taken a polygraph test at the time to prove that he had not lost intentionally. And the bookmakers claimed that there were no big bets on King’s victory.
In addition, it turned out that his son Larry Riggs had bet at least $500 against his father on King. The amount for a scam is small, but the fact itself was suggestive. However, all such conspiracy theories were never documented.
After “The Battle of the Sexes,” Riggs maintained friendly contact with King. A few days before Bobby’s death, she called and offered to visit him, but he did not agree because he did not want to be seen in a helpless state.
The night before Riggs died, Billie Jean called again and at the end of a brief conversation he could hardly utter: “We did it. We put women’s tennis on the map. We really did it, didn’t we? Billie? I love you.”
Billie Jean King’s victory was the starting point for a global change in professional tennis. That same year saw international recognition by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
Thereafter, the name “Battle of the Sexes” was repeatedly used to refer to tennis matches between men and women. In August 1985, Vytas Gerulaitis’ declaration that the world’s 100th-ranked men’s player was stronger than the world’s first-ranked women’s player was the occasion for the match, which took place in Atlantic City, between the men’s and women’s doubles. Martina Navratilova and her regular partner Pam Shriver played for the women.
The men’s pairing was composed of Gerulaitis himself and Riggs, who had turned 67 by then. In that encounter, dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes – Pairs,” Riggs was again defeated by a combined score of 2-6, 3-6, 4-6.
In September 1992, another “Battle of the Sexes” was held in Las Vegas in which Navratilova again took part. The tennis player, now 35 years old, played against 40-year-old Jimmy Connors. Unlike the match between King and Riggs, the organizers of the game in Las Vegas changed the rules to give Navratilova an added advantage. Despite the handicap, Connors won the meeting 7-5, 6-2.
Another event, dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” occurred during the 1998 Australian Open between Carsten Braasch and the Williams sisters.
Before that, 17-year-old Venus had already made it to the finals of the 1997 US Open, and 16-year-old Serena was also predicted to have a great future. Serena was the grand marshal of the tournament. She said she would play on equal terms with a man who was ranked no higher than 200th.
The mood of the American women embarrassed the 30-year-old German athlete Karsten Braasch. The tennis player, ranked 203rd at the time, challenged both sisters.
First Braasch took Serena down in one set, 6-1. Then it was his turn to beat Venus, 6-2.
“After the game, the sisters said they wanted to challenge the man again. But this time they revised the conditions: he must not be above No. 350. I told the reporter at the time that I had lost a lot of ATP points and would soon just fall to the right line. Let them wait a week and challenge me. In general, of course, we didn’t take that game too seriously, we just had fun,” laughed Braasch.
The last time a man played against a woman was in 2013. Novak Djokovic faced Li Na in a charity match in Beijing: the Chinese started every game with a score of 30-0 (and 0:30 on another serve), the match lasted about 15 minutes, but gathered 12,000 spectators in the stands of the central court. Li Na won on the tie-break with a difference of 2 points.