The women’s rights movement was picking up steam and Billie Jean King was the top women’s tennis player in the world in 1973 when she struck a great blow for women’s rights during the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
King’s victory still echoes 50 years later for its tremendous effect on equal rights for women in sports and elsewhere. She is being considered for a “Congressional Medal of Freedom.”
Bobby Riggs was a 55-year-old man who won U.S. amateur and professional titles, a Wimbledon singles title and was ranked No. 1 in the world -- in 1939, the Los Angeles Times reported. He had developed a reputation as a gambler and a tennis hustler with a rude, overbearing, and studiedly comic personality of questionable taste. Riggs hatched the idea to play King in a “battle of the sexes,” but she said no. So he wrangled a match against Grand Slam winner Margaret Court in what came to be named “The Mother’s Day Massacre,” The Times reported. He continued to badger King proclaiming that he would beat her as badly and crowing that “no woman could beat him” because they “lack emotional stability,” the Times said. He was 55 and King was 29, at the top of her game, and had just won her fifth Wimbledon singles title.
She said yes.
So it was set: Sept. 20, 1973, at the then-palatial Houston Astrodome, national TV, prime time, with bombastic sports broadcaster Howard Cosell mike-side.
The match had gone viral in the days before social media, ESPN, and general 24/7 media bombardment. The match was all anybody talked about, talk shows hummed with opinions. The broadcast drew 50 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 90 million more, worldwide, still the most to watch a tennis match and one of the most-watched television sports events of all time.
King played along with the circus-like atmosphere tinged with cringe-inducing 1970s humor, making her entrance on a chair borne by scantily-clad male athletes from nearby Rice University; Riggs’ “chauvinist-pig” persona was on full display. He entered riding a rickshaw drawn by scantily clad females, who along with Riggs all wore shirts sponsored by the candy bar “Sugar Daddy,” a pioneering moment in sports marketing.
But the hoopla meant nothing once the two players stepped onto the court. King was all business and methodically chopped Riggs up and won going away 6-4. 6-3, 6-3. She took the then-staggering prize of $100,000.
Her victory helped bring about a sea change in how women athletes were treated.
“The Battle of the Sexes gave women’s tennis, and women athletes, an unprecedented global platform,” King told the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHOF). “I am proud of the match’s lasting impact in establishing respect and providing opportunities for women in sports and beyond,” King said at a ceremony honoring her at the U.S. Open, reported by nbcenework.com
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