I was a junior at UT on September 20, 1973 when the so-called Battle of the Sexes took place at the Houston Astrodome before 30,000 howling fans and another 90 million, including me, who watched on television. In a heavily hyped, one-off tennis match, Billie Jean King (age 29) beat Bobby Riggs (55) in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. It was winner-take-all, and she took $100,000—fairly big money back then. After recounting this event of dubious authenticity, I will make a few comments. If I have not adequately masked my skepticism, I apologize. Doing so was not easy.
The match was Riggs’ idea. Although not a big guy at 5′ 7″, he had relied on speed and ball control to reach the top of the tennis world; he won Wimbledon in 1939, and the U.S. Open in 1939 and 1941. He beat Don Budge, Pancho Segura, Jack Kramer and other top players of his era. Apart from what he did on the court, Riggs was flamboyant, a shameless braggart and a hustler. He bet large amounts of money on himself—and usually won. Not always, though. Riggs’ gambling proclivities eventually made him beholden to the Mafia. Setting up odd matches or traveling tennis tours was the norm for Riggs in the 1950s and 1960s, although he won several seniors championships.
King, like Riggs, was a Los Angeles native. In a 24-year pro career, she won 129 titles (including the Australian Open in 1968; the French Open in 1972; Wimbledon in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973 and 1975; and the U.S. Open in 1967, 1971, 1972 and 1974). It seems fair to say she had a longer stay at the top than Riggs, although there were fewer great female players than male ones back then. I believe this is still the case, but perhaps to a lesser degree.
Man-versus-woman matches had been going on a long time before Riggs and King played in Houston. Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen met in 1921, and Phil Neer and Helen Wills 11 years later. More recently, Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova met in 1992, Karsten Braasch played the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) in alternating sets in 1998, Yannick Noah played Justine Henin in 2003, and Novak Djokovic played Li Na in 2013. Sometimes the men took it easy on their distaff opponents. In other cases, hybrid rules were followed with the hope of helping the women. Never was it serious competition, and why would it be? To take the top male and top female players in the world and have them go at it would be grossly unfair. The women would occasionally win a point, rarely a set and never a match. To watch such a contest would bore fans and demoralize aspiring female athletes. After all, since women and men do not have equal athletic abilities, there are valid reasons to keep them separate—that is, playing intra-gender matches (with the exception, of course, of mixed doubles).
In fact, Riggs had dispatched Margaret Court (winner of the Australian Open eight times, the French Open four times, Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open five times), 6-2, 6-1 on May 13, 1973. His mix of drop shots and lobs kept her off balance, as he said they would. He prevailed despite a 25-year age gap.
Why Riggs would thrash Court so thoroughly and then lose just as badly to King a few months later, I do not know. Some have speculated that Court saw the match as a lark. That would not be the case with King in Houston. She meant to win, although she partook of the hullabaloo leading up to the match. King was carried onto the court in a litter held by four husky young men, while Riggs entered on a rickshaw pulled by a pair of scantily clad girls. “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies,” he named them. Who said tennis is not a classy sport?
She ran him ragged and won easily. Riggs played poorly and made numerous unforced errors, causing some people to ask whether he had thrown the match. One man came forth in 2013 and claimed that by losing, Riggs had canceled his gambling debt to the mob. Maybe or maybe not, but with few exceptions the media viewed King's victory as legitimate. This event was made into something truly significant. Neil Amdur of the New York Times praised King to high heaven, as did Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated and others. It’s still happening. On the 40-year anniversary of Riggs’ loss to King, ESPN did a piece entitled “Billie Jean Won for All Women.” Books have been written, movies have been made, and urban legends have arisen.
Make no mistake—I support female athletics. It is one of the main reasons I am glad to be living today and not in an earlier age. But I continue to be perplexed by the powerful legacy of this trumped-up event. Billie Jean King beat an old man. Big, fat, hairy deal. I propose to turn it around and ask, why was she playing an old man?