Forty-five years ago today, on September 20, 1973, tennis champion Billie Jean King (age 29 then) defeated self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby “No-Broad-Can-Beat-Me” Riggs in the “Battle Of The Sexes” tennis match. An estimated 50 million viewers tuned in to watch, making it the most viewed U.S. tennis match of all time. More importantly, King’s victory made it a game-changer for women’s tennis.
In a 2013 interview with NPR, King talked about the back story to the infamous exhibition match.
“Remember Title IX had just passed … which was very important to me that that passed. It ended up being one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century, particularly for women at the time. … I really didn’t want [Title IX] to be weakened. I thought with Margaret [Court] losing [against Bobby Riggs in the first ‘Battle of the Sexes’], it would be a good chance for some of the people to start jumping on the bandwagon to weaken Title IX, hurt our tour, to hurt women’s sports, the women’s movement. … As soon as I found out [Margaret had lost] … I knew I definitely was going to play Bobby Riggs. I did not have a choice.
[Riggs] was 55. He was as old as my father [at the time]. For me to beat him meant absolutely nothing athletically. Nothing. But it’s what it represented. When Margaret lost, I didn’t know if I was going to beat him. I thought she would kill him as far as winning, and she didn’t. … You never underestimate your opponent.”
Beyond her game-changing “Battle of the Sexes” victory, considered one of the greatest moments in sports history, Billie Jean King had “a remarkable career, both as a tennis player and as a trailblazer for women: She won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them for singles, and she led an uprising of underpaid female players to demand fairer treatment and compensation in professional tennis.”
That revolt led to “the birth of women’s professional tennis and the formation of the Virginia Slims Tour and Women’s Tennis Association.” (King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974).
She is also the co-founder of World TeamTennis (WTT), the revolutionary professional tennis league established in 1974, and the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, launched in 2014 “to address inclusion and diversity issues in the workplace.”
A long-time champion for social justice and equality, Billie Jean King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12, 2009, becoming the first female athlete to be honored with the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Of the profound impact Billie Jean King has had on tennis, sports and society, the WTT notes, “She created new inroads for both genders in and out of sports during her legendary career and she continues to make her mark today.”
Lead image credit: ABC SPORTS, 1973
The Match Is Now A Movie
Last September, this infamous exhibition game and the story behind it hit big screens, nationwide. The film trailer for the Battle of the Sexes biopic shows Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs going head-to-head as they prepare for the big match.