On 20th September 1973, women’s tennis star Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes.’ Though the event packed a carnival atmosphere with Riggs in particular playing up to the role of the pantomime villain, the match was an important moment in sporting history with many marking it as a milestone in the public’s acceptance of women’s tennis.

True Story of Billy Jean King v Bobby Riggs - Battle of the Sexes

The match has been dramatised for a new film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs, respectively. But how true is the Hollywood telling of the story? What really caused the No.1 women’s tennis player in the world to play a self-promoting 55 year-old misogynist? We take a look at the true story of King v Riggs – the Battle of the Sexes.

Bobby Riggs

Bobby Riggs was once considered the best tennis player in the world. Despite losing much of his career to World War II, Riggs was the World No.1 or the World co-No.1 tennis player for three years, first as an amateur in 1939, then as a professional in 1946 and 1947. As a 21-year-old amateur in 1939, Riggs won Wimbledon, the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open), and was runner-up at the French Championships.

As well as his talents on the court, Riggs was also notorious for his showmanship and arrogance. He was also famous for being a hustler and gambler. In his 1949 autobiography, Riggs claimed that he had made $105,000 in 1939 by betting on himself to win the Singles, Doubles and Mixed Doubles titles at Wimbledon, a substantial amount of money at the time which in today’s money would equate to just over $1 million.

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Riggs v Court

Bobby Riggs is accepted to be one of the first self-made media-age celebrities and he craved the spotlight. As such, in 1973 Riggs challenged the best women’s tennis players in the world to a match. Riggs was now 55 years old but explicitly claimed he could beat anyone who accepted his challenge, often using sexist and misogynist stereotypes and insults while issuing them. Despite the goading, Australian player Margaret Court accepted the match in return for $10,000.

At the time, Court was 30 years old and was the World No.1 in the female game. During the build-up to the match, Briggs had bragged about the superiority of the male game and that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.

The match took place in Ramona, California on Mother’s Day, 13th May 1973. In front of 5,000 fans and televised by CBS Sports, Riggs entered the court with a bouquet of flowers for Court. Riggs won the match quickly, beating his younger opponent 6-2, 6-1 using an array of drop shots and lobs which kept Court off balance. Riggs was subsequently put on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time with the match dubbed the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre’.

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Billy Jean King

During his initial challenge to female tennis players, Riggs has originally wanted to play Billie Jean King. By 1973, King had already won 10 major singles titles but had repeatedly turned him down, not wanting to indulge the showman having been a strong advocate for gender equality and social justice.

But following his win over Court, Riggs had been in the national limelight and continued to taunt female tennis players. King eventually accepted the challenge as well as a lucrative offer which involved King taking on Riggs in a nationally televised match on prime time ABC. The match was dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes.’

A prize of $100,000 was set for the match with the winner taking all. Riggs hyped the contest in press conferences and in the media with a plethora of misogynistic comments, including “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot,” exclaiming, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” Riggs also promised to jump off a bridge if he lost declaring, “women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” King, though attempting to keep things playful, responded by calling him Riggs a ‘creep.’

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Riggs v King

The Battle of the Sexes match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was held at the Houston Astrodome, Texas on Thursday 20th September 1973.

King entered the court like Cleopatra on a golden litter carried by four topless men dressed as ancient slaves. Riggs followed by entering the arena in a rickshaw drawn by scantily clad models, while donning a yellow ‘Sugar Daddy’ jacket which he was paid $50,000 to wear. Riggs presented King with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop, while she gave him a squealing piglet, thought to be symbolic of his male chauvinism.

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Normally a serve-and-volley player, King stuck to the baseline grinding down Riggs with long rallies. King won in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.

The match had an estimated audience of 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide on TV, alongside the 30,472 in the Houston Astrodome. Until 2012, it remained the largest audience to watch a tennis match in the United States.

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Aftermath

Having won the match, King often stated she saw the match as more than just a publicity stunt, arguing that beating Riggs was important for both women’s tennis and for the women’s liberation movement in general; “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Riggs and King remained on friendly terms until his death. Riggs had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988 and he died at his home in Leucadia, California on 25th October in 1995, aged 77. It’s said King phoned Riggs during his final moments.

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Battle of the Sexes (2017)

A film adaptation of the Battle of the Sexes match between King and Riggs was announced in April 2015 with Emma Stone and Steve Carell taking on the leads. Based on the true story, the film tells the origin of the televised match as well as King’s sexuality as she becomes closer to her hairdresser played by Andrea Riseborough. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes is set for release in the UK on 24th November 2017. Check out the trailer below.


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