Forty-four years ago this month, Billie Jean King, one of the top female tennis players of all time, beat Bobby Riggs, a retired former #1 player in the men’s circuit, in front of an estimated worldwide audience of 90 million people.
Besides sending the cocksure and (admittedly) chauvinistic Riggs into a depression, the match, which some dismissed as a publicity stunt, would go on to be remembered as a symbolic achievement for women in a decade of tremendous social progress.
Now, the story behind the game, and the changes it helped inspire, is on the big screen in Battle of the Sexes, with Steve Carell as Riggs and Emma Stone as King.
Here’s the true story behind the historic showdown:
Meet Bobby Riggs
When we first meet Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, he’s a 55-year-old has-been with a gambling problem and a desperate need for attention. But back in the 1940s, he was one of the best tennis players in the world, with six major titles under his belt. He had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships as an amateur and was ranked the #1 player internationally for three years.
After he retired in 1951, Riggs used his considerable prowess as a promoter and entertainer to keep the spotlight on tennis — and himself. Ultimately unsatisfied with his life outside the court, he found he could gain attention in the press by disparaging the quality of women’s tennis and claiming that he could beat any of its top players.
While Riggs’ pronouncements failed to gain much traction among female tennis pros — including King, who turned him down repeatedly — he finally found a taker in Australian champ Margaret Court, who, at the age of 30, was the top women’s player in the world.
They played each other in front of 5,000 fans in Ramona, California on May 13, Mother’s Day. Using a series of drop shots and lobs to fluster Court, Riggs won the match easily. Dubbed the Mother’s Day Massacre, the event earned Riggs the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time.
“Now I want King bad,” he proclaimed after the game. “I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates … We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.”
Billie Jean King
At 29, King was at the top of her game when she finally accepted Riggs’ challenge in July 1973, agreeing to participate in a $ 100,000, winner-take-all televised showdown dubbed by promoters as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
At this point in her career, King, who would go on to win a total of 29 Grand Slam titles before she retired, was already an outspoken advocate for women’s tennis and women’s rights in general.
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For instance, when the Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament offered women just 15% of the prize money that it awarded the men — despite the fact that both finals earned equal ticket sales — King led a walk-out. She and several other women went on to create the Virginia Slims tour and later the Women’s Tennis Association.
Although she was in her prime, like Riggs, King was also immersed in her own personal problems at the time of the match. During the lead up to the game, she was in the midst of an affair with her hairdresser-turned-secretary Marilyn Barnett. King was still married to her husband, Larry King, at the time. The couple divorced in 1987, and King has since become a prominent LGBTQ advocate.
The Battle of the Sexes
Despite her seriousness about promoting women’s tennis, King did playfully engage in the outrageous trash talking — led by Riggs — that drove press for the match throughout the summer.
The duo held a series of press conferences together, where banter included barbs from Riggs like, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.”
Finally, on September 20, 1973, 30,000 fans filled the new Houston Astrodome to enjoy the spectacle. King made her grand entrance on a Roman-style litter carried by four buff, shirtless members of the Rice University track team. Riggs, meanwhile, opted for a rickshaw driven by a group of buxom models dubbed “Bobby’s bosom buddies.”
They even exchanged gifts: King received a novelty-sized Sugar Daddy lollipop (Riggs’ personal sponsor for the match), while Riggs was given a baby pig, a symbol of his self-proclaimed chauvinism.
While the final score card suggests an easy victory for King, she later admitted to getting rattled early on, telling CNN that after Riggs broke her serve in the first set, she realized she “had to win” given the implications of the match.
Having learned from Court’s mistakes, King refused to be fooled by Riggs’ tricky drop shots and lobs. She ended up winning the contest in straight sets: 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
The match represented an enormously satisfying win for women in tennis, but critics were quick to downplay its significance.
Many argued that the age difference (26 years) between King and Riggs played too large a factor in the outcome, while others theorized that Riggs lost the match on purpose to settle gambling debts.
Years later ESPN would even report that the entire game was rigged by the mob, but those close to Bobby have said the rumors are “ridiculous” — citing Riggs’ fragile ego as proof enough alone that he’d never bet against himself.
Another clue lies in their personal post-match conversation, in which King later revealed Riggs told her, “I really underestimated you.” He also reportedly later said after the match, “This is the worst thing in the world I’ve ever done.”
On a positive note, after the “Battle of the Sexes,” King and Riggs remained close friends until his death in 1995. King said she spoke to Riggs the day before he died, and they said “I love you” to each other.
Battle of the Sexes is in select theaters now — it opens wide Sept. 29.
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