This Day In History: September 20, 1973

September 20, 1973 King defeats Riggs in Battle of the Sexes II

On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs in a widely publicized exhibition tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” The 55-year-old Riggs, a tennis champion from the late 1930s and 40s who was notoriously skeptical of women’s talents on the tennis court, branded the contest the “Battle of the Sexes.”

Bobby Riggs first proposed a male-female match-up to Billie Jean King, then 28, whom he dubbed the “leading women’s libber of tennis,” in 1972. King ignored the offer, but Australian Margaret Court, 30, who had won 89 of her last 92 matches and was the leading money-winner on the women’s professional tour at the time, accepted. Leading up to this first “Battle of the Sexes” match, Riggs loudly and consistently belittled women’s tennis and its players to the media while Court, occupied with raising her one-year-old son, said little.

On May 13, 1973, Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court faced off in the $10,000 winner-take-all challenge. The match, held on Riggs’ home turf, was televised internationally. To the surprise of many, Riggs defeated Court easily, 6-2, 6-1. The moment the match ended, Riggs again challenged Billie Jean King. This time, she accepted, and their $100,000 winner-take-all match–dubbed by some “the libber vs. the lobber”–was set for September 20, 1973.

A sell-out crowd of 30,492 people, the largest ever for a tennis match, filled the Houston Astrodome while millions more in 36 countries tuned in on television to watch King, a five-time Wimbledon champion, all but chew Riggs up and spit him out. The older man lacked the energy and stamina to keep up with her aggressive serve-and-volley game, and she prevailed easily, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. At a news conference after the match, Riggs explained the loss: “She was too good, too fast. She returned all my passing shots and made great plays off them. . . . I was trying to play my game, but I couldn’t.”

 After Riggs’ death at age 77 in 1995, King complimented her former rival and his probably accidental contribution to the advancement of sexual equality: “Our ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match helped to advance the game of tennis and women everywhere.”

D. K. Smith

D. K. Smith

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