30 Moments of Pride: Billie Jean King wins ‘The Battle of the Sexes’

For Pride month, we’ve dedicated each day of June to an individual athlete or coach whose shining moment changed LGBTQ sports.

Today: We’re looking back at Sept. 20, 1973, when tennis icon Billie Jean King undid the damage caused by Margaret Court when she got creamed on the court by Bobby Riggs.

Not this time!

Here’s how our Ken Schultz (with a little help from me) told the tale:

Leading up to the match, Bobby Riggs, 55, had taken on a public persona that combined the humanity of a pro wrestling heel with the decency of a morning radio shock jock. Riggs was infamous for finding the red light on any nearby camera and uttering smack talk like, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” With that kind of language, he could’ve been named U.S. Soccer president.

In today’s climate, Riggs would be rightfully shamed into contrition and would have probably lost work and endorsements. But 1973 was only a year after the passage of Title IX and an era when women’s sports weren’t taken seriously by many fans. Rather than relying on an outraged public, a prominent female athlete was going to have to make Riggs shut up.

Australia’s Margaret Court, 30, rated the world’s No. 1 woman tennis player, gets a pat on the back from Bobby Riggs, 55, after he easily defeated her in their celebrated match game at Ramona, Calif., May 13, 1973. Riggs, former world’s men’s champion, won with an assortment of his “junk” shots.

The final blow: Margaret Court received a condescending pat on the back from Bobby Riggs.
AP/Wally Fong

Just a few months earlier that year, on May 13 — Mother’s Day — Riggs faced Margaret Court on the tennis court. It was reported that “Riggs fed her course after course of garbage: lobs, dinks, blob balls, drop shots, funky spins.” As The Oregonian’s Douglas Perry recounted, the result was a lopsided triumph for The Misogynist: 6-2, 6-1. It quickly became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”

Then on Sept. 20, before an audience of 30,000 fans at the Astrodome and 90 million watching on TV, King faced Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” She later admitted that something vitally important was on the line:

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

Fortunately, King thoroughly disposed of Riggs in three straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. In an era of sports where a woman had to prove that she deserved to be treated on equal footing with a man, she did so convincingly.

You can read a 1973 account of this historic match by clicking here.

And here’s how you can follow Billie Jean King on Twitter.

We’ll bring you another Moment of Pride tomorrow and every this month.


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