On Sept. 20, 1973, one of the most important sports matchups of all time happened between two of the greatest athletes to ever compete in Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. This led to not only one of the biggest upsets in sports but also gave a lot more attention to women’s sports in general, especially in tennis.
Coming into the match, many people believed that Bobby Riggs was going to win handily. During the 1930’s and 1940’s Riggs won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open twice and was considered the World’s No. 1 male tennis player in 1941, 1946 and 1947. Riggs retired in 1962 but came out of retirement in 1973 at age 55 to face Margaret Court, who at the time was ranked the best female tennis player for the seventh year in a row. Riggs won handily with a 6–2, 6–1 victory that took less than an hour, and thanks to his drop shots and lob, he kept Court off balance all fight, leading to his easy victory.
The other challenger, Billie Jean King came into this match in a very different spot in her career. Originally, Riggs challenged King but she declined, which resulted in Court being the opponent instead. However, after Riggs beat Court, King decided to accept his challenge. While she may have not ranked at No. 1, she was already a decorated tennis player throughout just five years of being a professional. She had won Wimbledon four times by that point (including in 1973), along with three U.S. open wins.
Riggs took an early advantage when he broke King’s serve and she fell behind 3–2. Knowing how much was riding on her winning, King responded back. After watching Court’s loss, she was prepared for Riggs’ tactics. King changed from her usual aggressive game to being more conservative, choosing to stay at the baseline while forcing Riggs to have to cover the entire court. Due to this, she easily beat his defensive style and forced him to have to serve-and-volley. Because of this change in tactic, he was no match for King and she won soundly 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
“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,” King stated after the match.
Even though King proved that female athletes were able to compete with male athletes, there were some male critics that complained about the match, saying that King’s age factored into the contest as King is 26 years younger than Riggs.
A male tennis player and ABC announcer Jack Kramer, who was against fair pay, offered to host his own tournament. The reward changed depending on the gender of the winner: female players got $1,500 whereas the male players got $12,000. After his comments, King forced ABC to drop him as a commentator.
Critics were not the only people criticizing the match. After the match, there was controversy over whether the match was fixed for King to win. Riggs stated that he intentionally threw the match in order to pay off a gambling debt, as he was known to be a big-time gambler. Though supposedly, if he had won the match, he could have won potentially $1 million in a match against Chrissie Evert at some point.
Whether or not the match was rigged for King to win, there is no denying the impact the match had on women’s tennis and women’s sports in general. It ended up breaking records for the most-watched tennis match with 30,472 in attendance and an estimated 90 million people watching the match from home. This undoubtedly helped women’s sports, finally giving them an audience and now giving female athletes an argument for why they should be paid fairly, an argument that is still going on today.
After this match, King continued competing until 1990 when she retired at age 47 and finished with a career record of 695–155, six Wimbledon titles, four U.S. Opens and one win in each of the Australian and French opens. Riggs didn’t compete professionally again and died on Oct. 25, 1995. However, he maintained a strong friendship with King until his death. The match was turned into a movie in 2017, titled “Battle of the Sexes,” which was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.