Remembering the Battle of the Sexes
Billie Jean King has accomplished many things. She won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and 27 major doubles titles, was ranked No. 1 in the world and founded the WTA and the Women's Sports Foundation. She was Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman of the Year in 1972. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
But King's most memorable accomplishment? Beating 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a tennis exhibition before 30,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973. A reported 50 million people watched on television as the 29-year-old King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a match that played a huge role in legitimizing female athletes.
Here's a look back on the 38th anniversary of the "Battle of the Sexes."
Riggs ascended to the top of the tennis world and won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open during his career. By 1973, King was a five-time Wimbledon champion.
At the time of the Battle of the Sexes, Riggs was a tennis hustler and promoter, who, more than anything, viewed this event as an opportunity to make some money. (Both players reportedly received $150,000.)
(Jerry Cooke/SI; Neil Leifer/SI)
The match was a spectacle. King arrived on an Egyptian litter carried by bare-chested men. Riggs entered in a rickshaw pulled by women known as Bobby's Bosom Buddies.
In their pre-match gift exchange, Riggs presented King with a Sugar Daddy caramel "sucker." King gave him a live pig with a bow tied around its neck, a not-so-veiled reference to the male chauvinist reputation that he embraced.
(Jerry Cooke/SI; Tony Triolo/SI)
A few months earlier in another exhibition, Riggs demolished then-No. 1 Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1. After that, King finally accepted Riggs' challenge. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," King said. "It would ruin the women's Tour and affect all women's self-esteem." Meanwhile, Riggs basked in the publicity, making the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated.
Covering the match for Sports Illustrated, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote: "On King's part it was a brilliant rising to an occasion; a clutch performance under the most trying of circumstances. Seldom has there been a more classic example of a skilled athlete performing at peak efficiency in the most important moment of her life."
"It actually had an impact on tennis," King told NPR in 2008. "The men and the women's professional Tours had the biggest attendance ever in 1974 because of it. We got our first network contracts because of it, and that's both men and women.
"[A]lso what came from this match is the first generation of men of the women's movement, because I have men coming up to me today that have daughters, and they have tears in their eyes, and they tell me how that match, they were 10 years old, 12 years old, 17 years old, and how that match changed their life and how they've raised their daughters, and they're the first generation of men that truly believe that their daughters and sons should have equal opportunity."