On September 20, 1973,
50 million viewers tuned in to watch a male chauvinist go up against a much more qualified woman opponent. This scenario might sound familiar to those of us who were invested in the 2016 presidential election. Only unlike the election, you’ll be able to cheer while watching Battle of the Sexes.
The tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was more than just two pros playing each other in a friendly rivalry. Instead, the match became a
symbol of the women's liberation movement, and validated women's place in professional tennis. The match also coincided with fascinating points in both players’ lives. King was coming to terms with her sexuality, and Riggs was dealing with his identity as a has-been — and his more urgent debts to the mob.
On September 22, you can watch
Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs, respectively, in the film . Don't expect a typical sports movie, though. As King herself said in the Battle of the Sexes , "It’s not just a tennis film. The movie is about what the match was about: social change, what was going on, [and] where I wanted tennis to go."
New York Post
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Meet Bobby Riggs, self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig. Back in his heyday, Bobby Riggs was kind of a big deal. In 1939, he won the men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles tournaments in Wimbledon. He was also quick to brag about it — Riggs claimed he bet on himself at Wimbledon, and racked in $100,000. After Wimbledon, Riggs won the 1939 U.S. National Championships. Riggs then lost the prime years of his career fighting in the Navy during WWII, but still came back to win three world championships. After his career waned, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967. Yet a career in promoting wasn’t enough for Riggs. In 1973, he took on a new challenge: Goading tennis’ top women players into playing a match against him.
Wally Fong/AP Photo
In May 1973, Riggs beat the top-ranked women's tennis player in the country. In 1973, Margaret Court was the number one-ranked women’s tennis player in the country. When Riggs offered a $100,000 payday to play him in tennis, she bit. Recognizing the political value in this game, King urged Court to take the match seriously, but Court trained as if it were an exhibition, not a serious match. During their match on May 13 — dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre” — Riggs played dirty, using drop shots and spin shots to defeat Court. “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot,” Riggs said the day of the match. Many viewed Court’s loss as a setback to the women’s tennis movement. "She gave no thought to its social consequences. Americans were tossing bras, girdles and nylons into trash bins, but the women's movement didn't move Margaret. She was a Mrs., not a Ms," wrote Selena Roberts in the book . A Necessary Spectacle Riggs wasn’t satisfied. He set his sights on Billie Jean King, the 29-year-old founder of the Women’s Tennis Association.
After King agreed to play a match against him, Riggs’ chauvinist talons came out. It wasn’t the $100,000 payout that convinced King to play Riggs. It was his barrage of chauvinistic, sexist comments. “We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now,” Riggs said at one point. Even after she agreed to play him, the comments kept coming. “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman, and they don’t have the emotional stability,” Riggs said. King then called him a “creep.” As the pre-match publicity went on, Riggs said more and more cringeworthy things. “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” And, “Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.” The 55-year-old Riggs, who was already riddled in gambling debts, spent the summer partying. King spent the summer training intensely, and playing tennis in the all-women’s Virginia Slims Circuit she founded in 1970.
Come September, all eyes were on Riggs and King. Thirty thousand people crowded into the Houston Astrodome, including Salvador Dali. Fifty million turned on ABC. Then, Kings and Riggs made their entrances. King was brought into the stadium on a gilded palimpsest, carried by a group of toga-clad members of the Rice University men’s track team. Riggs was pulled in on a rickshaw by a group of women he called “Bobby’s bosom buddies,” and wore a shirt with the logo “Sugar Daddy.” King approached Riggs and gave him a piglet; Riggs gave her a Sugar Daddy lollipop. And then, King completely eviscerated Riggs. She beat him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. “Pigs Are Dead...Long Live the King," read the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner .
After the match, King became a superstar and a pioneer. Riggs called these matches because he missed the spotlight, but he inadvertently put it all on King. She landed endorsements for everything from Colgate toothpaste to Adidas sneakers. The following year, she racked up $1 million, and she won 12 titles over the course of her long career. "Billie Jean, she just pushed the clock forward, she sped up the process," Martina Navratilova told . "Any progress is measured by jumps, and that was one of those jumps that pushed the clock forward and allowed us to move forward as women athletes and to make a career out of it so it wasn't just a hobby. "
King’s victory had huge repercussions for women’s athletics and women’s rights. The reputation of women’s tennis was bolstered by the Battle of the Sexes Match. "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us. We'll always remember him in the best possible way. I always said he did the most for women's tennis," said , who did commentary on the Riggs-King match. Rosie Casals King was aware of the timing of the match with the greater women’s liberation movement. Only a year prior, Title IX, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex, was passed. King had been a huge advocate for Title IX legislation. “Title IX opened everything up: It’s 37 words that basically say ‘no sex discrimination,’ and it’s one of the most important pieces of legislation ever in the 20th century. It guaranteed equal protection if you received federal funds—high school, colleges, university. It’s also the first time a girl could receive an athletic scholarship,” King told .
King was publicly outed in 1981. As Battle of the Sexes shows, King was simultaneously married to a man named Larry King ( not the talk show host) and having an affair with a woman named Marilyn Barnett in 1973, the year of the match. After Barnett and King’s seven-year affair ended, for assets she claimed King had promised to her. She sought half of King’s earnings and part of the beach home in Malibu, claiming that Barnett had been promised help for “the rest of her life.” Barnett sued King The suit publicly outed King. She lost all of her endorsements within a day of its filing.
But King's road would be a long one. King was recognized for her her work furthering the tennis profession for women, furthering the women's liberation movement, and her gay rights advocacy. In addition to receiving an award from GLAAD and having her very own Billie Awards, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2009. Oddly enough, Obama used to watch King practice when he was a high-schooler in Hawaii. The president later sent King to Sochi as a delegate for the Winter Olympics, a response to Putin's anti-gay propaganda. "Tennis is a platform," King said at the Medal of Freedom ceremony. "And I fight for everybody."
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