It was, at once, a cultural touchstone and a bit of cultural shlock, a watershed moment that came wrapped in gold lamé and glitter. In the fall of 1973, Bobby Riggs—a shameless, 55-year-old provocateur and hustler, well past his prime as a tennis player—challenged Billie Jean King, then 29 and the reigning Wimbledon champ, to a match. Earlier that summer Riggs had challenged King's rival Margaret Court. Incapacitated by nerves, Court could scarcely hit the ball. After Riggs won, he gloated that he was "the champion of women's tennis."
When King agreed to the winner-take-all showdown, the event quickly became a made-for-TV referendum on gender equity, set in the decade's iconic venue (the Houston Astrodome) with commentary from its iconic voice (Howard Cosell). After weeks of boxing-style build-up and trash talk, Riggs took the court seated in a rickshaw, carted by a team of buxom models he called Bobby's Bosom Buddies. King was carried in by a team of men dressed as slaves as if she were Cleopatra.
The hype worked. A crowd of 30,000, including celebrities from Salvador Dalí to Glen Campbell, were courtside. The television audience of nearly 50 million rivaled the viewership of Super Bowl VII, held earlier that year.
Many wondered what King had to gain that night. Had she lost, it would have been the height of humiliation. Yet beating a man almost twice her age would prove ... what, exactly? "For me," says King, still irrepressible at 68, "it was life and death. Losing wasn't an option."
May 7, 2012
King prevailed both on the court and in the court of public opinion. It wasn't so much that she was the superior player, thrashing Riggs 6--4, 6--3, 6-3, it was that she had also stood up to his bullying and delivered a few zingers of her own. The next day's Los Angeles Herald Examiner headline: PIGS ARE DEAD ... LONG LIVE THE KING.
After some initial unease, King accepted the notion that her defining match would not be one of a dozen triumphant Grand Slam finals but an exhibition against a loudmouthed male. "You have to remember where we were as a society," she once told SI. "The more women came up to me with their stories—Hey, Billie, after watching you beat Bobby Riggs, I was inspired to go to school or leave my abusive relationship or whatever—the more I knew how important it was."
King has continued to be a tireless champion for equality in sports and other Title IX issues. She and Riggs grew close, and King spoke to him shortly before he died of prostate cancer in 1995. "Want to know what he said to me the last time we talked?" says King. "He looks at me and says, 'We made a difference. We really did, didn't we?'"