AP Was There: Battle of the Sexes
HOUSTON (AP) — “The Battle of the Sexes” was a 1973 exhibition tennis match pitting 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, against Billy Jean King, a 29-year-old feminist icon and a top female player. It was more public-relations spectacle than test of athletic skill.
A boorish Riggs exploited women’s stereotypes for laughs, riling up his male supporters. King used the publicity to promote women’s rights, particularly equal pay.
King’s decisive victory in the match helped raise awareness of gender inequality in sports, but the entire event was little more than reality TV ahead of its time.
What follows is the AP’s match report — originally published Sept. 21, 1973 — which 44 years later reads like a reflection of the times.
HOUSTON (AP) — Bobby Riggs’ next big spectacle may be a leap off the Suicide Bridge in Pasadena, Calif., while Billie Jean King is happy to have made a spectacle of the 55-year-old hustler and to have won $200,000 to boot.
Screaming, delirious womens-libbers lit up more brightly than the rocket-shooting Astrodome scoreboard Thursday night when Mrs. King showed the devastating swiftness that won her five Wimbledon titles in defeating self-proclaimed male chauvinist Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the internationally televised battle of the sexes tennis extravaganza.
“Bobby Riggs has just been flushed down the toilet,” shouted women’s pro tour member Madeliene Regal of Sweden after Mrs. King’s straight sets victory before 30,472 Astrodome fans and millions more television viewers.
Mrs. King, one of the most decorated warriors for equal women’s rights on the pro tennis circuit, said she had waited 18 years for this match with Riggs.
“Ever since the day when I was 11 years old and wasn’t allowed in a photo because I didn’t have a tennis skirt on, I knew then that I wanted to change the sport,” the 29-year-old Mrs. King said.
Riggs, who claimed he would set women’s tennis back 20 years against Billie Jean, looked every bit his age after the match. Riggs appeared to tire as early as the first set and had trouble getting his first serve going.
Nor could Riggs, the aging 1939 Wimbledon singles champion, match Mrs. King’s continual strong ground shots, which never let up.
Riggs was so sure of victory, he vowed he would jump off the Pasadena Bridge or the London Bridge in Arizona if he lost.
It was a $100,000 winner-take-all match, but television and other rights were expected to boost the winner’s share to about $200,000 and give the loser about $100,000.
Despite his constant barrage of criticism against women’s tennis, Riggs was a gracious loser.
“What happened?” Riggs asked(.) “Billie Jean was just too strong for me. She was too quick in the exchanges. I thought I had her out of court many times but she made the shots.
“I never felt better. I felt great warming up. I didn’t have a good day serving but she didn’t get any breaks. If anybody got the breaks it was me.”
Mrs. King didn’t budge an inch during the match and she also held her own with Riggs’ pre-match gimmickery. Mrs. King made her entrance on a carriage, borne by six muscular males like a reigning Egyptian queen.
Riggs then entered riding in a rickshaw, pulled by several pretty “Bobby’s Boosters” with “Sugar Daddy” on the backs of their blouses. Riggs presented Mrs. King with a giant candy sucker with “Sugar Daddy” written on the side.
Riggs got a brown baby pig from Mrs. King.
Riggs’ game started coming apart in the first set although he broke Mrs. King’s serve in the fifth game. Mrs. King broke right back and broke again in the 10th game when Riggs double faulted at set point.
Riggs broke Mrs. King in the first game of the second set. Although Mrs. King broke back again, Riggs appeared to start a rally when he held his service after eight deuces for a 2-2 tie in games. But Mrs. King broke Riggs in the eighth game and then served a love game for the second set.
Mrs. King kept rolling in the third set, breaking Riggs in the first game. Riggs then made his final challenge, serving a love game and then breaking Mrs. King for a 2-2 tie in the third set.
From there, Mrs. King broke back with a love game and then won it with a service break in the final game when Riggs double faulted and hit into the net on the final two points after escaping two match points.
Riggs started the battle of the sexes matches with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Australia’s Margaret Court earlier in the year and Mrs. King said it was Mrs. Court who gave her good advice for playing Riggs.
“Margaret told me he can’t roll over his backhand,” Mrs. King said. “he can only pass me with flat shot. She told me to just try to attack his backhand.”
The Astrodome scene looked like anything but a tennis match(.) The University of Houston band played march music while pretty pom-pom girls kicked in time. The rowdy crowd cheered throughout the match and never showed signs of letting up.
Mrs. King got the loudest applause and cheers after good shots and she enjoyed it. “For once, I’m the underdog and I love it,” she said.
Now that she’s put women’s tennis back on the map, Mrs. King said she was looking forward to a new phase of her career starting next year as the player-coach of the Philadelphia franchise in the new World team tennis league.
“I love the crowds and the know I believe in screaming on bands,” Mrs. King said. “You, the courts and the team aspect of the sport. I’m looking forward to being the first woman coach in professional athletics.”