By the time her Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs grew near, the months-long hype had become so intense Billie Jean King went into a self-imposed media blackout for a week -- to focus on her own rigorous preparation and ice the trash-talking Riggs. But now the big moment had finally arrived. The date was Sept. 20, 1973. Night was falling in Houston when promoter Jerry Perenchio arrived at King’s dressing room to walk her out to the makeshift tennis court set up on the floor of the Astrodome. Perenchio asked King if she was ready to go and King smiled and shot back, “Jerry, I was born ready.”
As they walked down a backstage corridor now the scene looked like a cross between Mardi Gras and the backlot of a Hollywood movie studio, not a sporting event. Two mascots dressed as male chauvinist pigs -- a nod to Riggs’ favorite boast about himself -- danced a little jig in place. Bobby’s Buxom Beauties, a gaggle of women wearing hot pants, milled around waiting to escort him out in the Sugar Daddy jacket he was wearing. A bearded man went by wearing an apron.
More WTA 50
- 'You can't beat the truth': Venus Williams recalls fight for equal pay
- From hitting serves to serving insights, the incomparable Mary Carillo
- At the US Open, no one was bigger -- or greater -- than Serena Williams
Perenchio had promoted the unforgettable “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 at Madison Square Garden and he said he wanted the King-Riggs’ match to have the same feel as a big-time prizefight. He succeeded. Perenchio imported celebrities to sit in the courtside seats and set up a meat carving station and champagne bar to pamper them. ABC announcers Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford wore tuxedos. The University of Houston’s 170-piece marching band was hired to perform, and Helen Reddy sang her hit feminist anthem “I Am Woman” as an ode to King before the match. Even surrealist painter Salvador Dali was in the house, as if he had to see this night for himself.
The worldwide embrace of the event was a far cry from just three years earlier when King and eight other players (now known as the Original Nine) risked ostracism and lifetime suspensions to found the first all-women’s pro tennis tour in September of 1970 -- also in Houston. Many of their male counterparts disparaged their efforts at the time and predicted they’d fail. One told King to her face, “No one will actually pay to watch you birds play.”
How spectacularly wrong they were.
In the Virginia Slims tour’s inaugural season in 1971, King became the first female athlete to make $100,000 in a calendar year, out-earning all but six players in major league baseball. Then King did it again in 1972. By 1973, things were happening even faster. In June, King and her fellow players in London pushed through the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association just four days before Wimbledon. In August, the US Open announced it would be the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money, another effort King spearheaded.
Now this: A raucous crowd of 30,172 inside the Astrodome and an estimated 90 million television viewers tuned in worldwide, all to see if King or Riggs would capture the winner-take-all purse of $100,000 -- all records for a tennis match.
King was nearing the entrance into the stadium now, but she had no idea Perenchio had one last flourish planned. He stopped her by a gilt Egyptian litter with enormous plumes of ostrich feathers surrounded by a half-dozen bare chested athletes in togas poised to carry King into the stadium like Cleopatra. Looking a bit sheepish now, Perenchio said, “We weren’t sure if you’d want to do this but …”
“Are you KIDDING? I love it!” King said, scrambling into the red-velvet seat for her grand entrance while adding, “It’s showtime, baby!”
And away they went.
AFTER THE PASSAGE OF A HALF CENTURY, it’s easy to dismiss the Battle of the Sexes as some silly relic of a lost era. Why in the world did anyone think the 55-year-old Riggs could beat King, then just 29 and in the prime of her career? Wasn’t the premise -- any man is better than every woman -- just a made-for-TV concoction that meant little and signified nothing?
But succumbing to such thinking would be wrong.
King says not a day goes by without someone still mentioning the Riggs match to her. What she acutely understood even then was, “It isn’t about tennis, it’s about social change.” And history has proven her right.
“I honestly didn’t think beating Bobby was a huge accomplishment athletically,” King said in a phone interview a couple weeks ago, “but we wanted to change hearts and minds and I knew the worldwide reach it could have. It had an important effect psychologically and emotionally.”
In 1973, Riggs was hardly the only person saying, “The male in king, the male is supreme!” or claiming that women were unsuited for certain callings, undeserving of equal pay and other rights, and constitutionally incapable of handling pressure. The fact the oddsmakers installed Riggs as a 5-2 favorite -- though King had just swept the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon -- seems preposterous now, too. But it was another measure of how deep sexism ran at the time.
By the mid-1970s, only nine percent of the physicians in America were women because medical school admissions had long been denied to them. Women’s representation was appallingly low in law, politics, corporate executive suites and countless other fields. Pitched fights were being waged over workplace equity, reproductive rights, civil rights, the passage of Title IX. A woman couldn’t even get a credit card in her own name without her husband’s consent until 1975.
The Battle of the Sexes tapped directly into those contentious cultural debates. Women wanted more. Men still had the upper hand. And Riggs -- tongue-in-cheek or not -- insisted he wanted to keep it that way.
“I love women -- in the bedroom and in the kitchen, in that order,” Riggs said. “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot. … She’s a women’s libber, and I’m playing to prove the man is king. … These women say they want to earn the same as us, and that’s ridiculous.”
BY THE END, King became a heroic stand-in for folks who were experiencing discrimination, doubts and harassment in their lives. Countless women have approached King in the decades since and told her, “You changed my life that night. … You made me believe things were possible.” Many men have approached King too and told her she transformed their views of women, and even how to raise their own daughters.
And yet, the soaring irony is the most famous moment of King’s career almost never happened. King initially had no intention of succumbing to Riggs’ years-long goading to play him. By the spring of 1973, the Virginia Slims tour was growing, but its existence remained tenuous. King also knew the USTA was about to announce that year’s US Open would become the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money -- another fight she had spearheaded. She wanted to keep the momentum going.
King felt women’s tennis had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a circus-like match against Riggs. As an ardent student of history, King knew his story well. At 21, Riggs swept the 1939 singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon, but World War II interrupted his career. He retired before the Open Era of tennis began in 1968 and missed the big purses the pros began earning. He became a hustler, an inveterate gambler and barnstorming showman instead, often playing gimmicky challenge matches for cash, sometimes while leashed to a dog or with six chairs dotting his side of the court.
King also knew that Riggs’ goofiness obscured that he was still a pretty good tennis player, and he was an absolute master at mind games. She had genuine respect for him as an underappreciated champion. But far as some yardstick of male supremacy, Riggs didn’t even pass the eye test. He stood 5-foot-9, walked like a penguin and wore Coke-bottle thick, black-frame glasses. By 1973, he was dyeing his hair brown.
What would beating this guy prove?
King’s calculus might have never changed if Riggs hadn’t convinced Australia’s Margaret Court, the other great player of her generation, to face him instead in May of 1973 for a $10,000 payday. Court always said she was no women’s libber, and she wasn’t among those who risked their careers to make the gains in women’s tennis happen. She ignored King’s entreaties about what was at stake if she lost to Riggs. Court thought there was no way she would lose.
Court was 30 years old, ranked No. 1 in the world and well on her way to collecting 24 Grand Slam singles titles, a record she now shares with Novak Djokovic. At 5-foot-10, Court was taller and faster and more powerful than Riggs. But she didn’t prepare much to face him. “One of my mistakes,” Court conceded later.
When Riggs routed her on national TV in a 6-2, 6-1 shocker that became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre his chauvinistic boasts about the women’s tour seemed validated. And King couldn’t let that stand.
“Now I have to play him,” King said the moment she saw the score.
A LOT OF WHAT RIGGS SAID and did to hype the Battle of the Sexes wouldn’t be utterable in public discourse today. But the oft-forgotten aside is many of King’s male tennis contemporaries felt the same way. They were outspokenly against women players earning equal pay or the sharing top billing and show courts at tournaments. Some openly questioned women athletes’ femininity and disparaged their “desirability” for marriage.
“Once these women get independent, they won’t listen to anyone,” two-time Grand Slam champion Stan Smith once said. Jack Kramer, an American champion-turned-promoter, said fans “get up to get a hot dog or go to the bathroom when the women come on.”
When Sports Illustrated sent a writer to report on the fledging Slims tour, he wrote a piece assuring readers there wasn’t a bearded woman or waddling lumberjack in the group.
King was used to the sexist tropes and brushed off Riggs’ over-the-top antics at first, too, figuring it was part of the promotion. Publicly, she remained unperturbed, needled him back and often ignored his remarks to make the points she wanted to convey. Ultimately, however, King felt Riggs crossed the line when he arrived at his public practice a day before their final press conference wearing a t-shirt with two circles cut out to expose his nipples and cracked King would look better in it than him.
King was calm but direct when they met the media the next day, and Riggs pleaded with her to take back how she’d just called him a “creep.”
King looked him in the eye and said, “Creep stands.”
As she later explained, “I knew some people actually did believe some of the sexist things he was spouting, and I wanted to be forceful and clear: It was not OK.”
By match time, their rift seemed just real enough. The Battle of the Sexes had become an overheated, turbocharged, runaway sensation. People around the world were planning viewing parties, making wagers, taking sides and talking trash themselves. Women who ran into King in public urged her to “shut that man up.” Men agreed when Riggs boasted, “I’ll kill her.”
The pressure on King seemed through the roof. But once the match started, Riggs had few answers for anything she did. King abandoned her usual serve-and-volley game at first and stayed on the baseline, feeding Riggs soft stuff to force him to generate power on his own. He couldn’t. She ran him from corner to corner, net post to baseline, the better to tire him out. He did. She served beautifully, smashed overheads by him and startled Riggs with her speed and athleticism. She was as composed as Court was not, and Riggs eventually wilted under all of it -- the onslaught, the emotions, the heat.
A roof-shaking roar went up when Riggs limply slapped his final shot into the net and King tossed her racquet in the air. Riggs told her as they shook hands, “I underestimated you.” Then he told the press the same thing.
The final score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. But it really wasn’t about tennis at all, was it? It absolutely was about social change.
IN THE 50 YEARS SINCE, King has never stopped working indefatigably for diversity, equity and inclusion. She turns 80 in November, yet keeps a daunting, globetrotting schedule. Her influence continues to extend beyond tennis into business, politics and policy making, LGBTQ+ rights, you name it. Life magazine named her one of the 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century. If she keeps up her pace, she might be a candidate for the 21st century list, too.
“I get too much credit,” King said. “We did all these things as a team.”
Today King and her wife, Ilana Kloss, have ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers, the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and Angel City FC, a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman balked during protracted talks with Kloss and King about starting a pro women’s hockey league for world-class players, they teamed up with Dodgers owners Mark and Kimbra Walter instead, attracted other partners and took on the job themselves. The new league will start play in January, marking another milestone reached.
“For the first time in my life, I finally feel like I can breathe a little -- or at least exhale for a little bit,” King said in the same phone interview a couple weeks ago, the day before she presented Coco Gauff with the winner’s trophy at the US Open. ("Thank you, Billie, for fighting for this," Coco said, waving the envelope with her $3-million winner’s check inside.)
Noting the billionaires and corporate entities who now see women’s sports as a smart investment, King added, “I feel like we’re at a tipping point.”
A half century has passed since the first dominoes fell. But King says she’s not done yet.
Johnette Howard is a longtime journalist who co-wrote Billie Jean King’s best-selling autobiography “All In” (2021). Howard’s other book is “The Rivals: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship” (2015).