Bobby Riggs vs Billie Jean King
Forty years (to the day) after the publication of this cover story on Time magazine*, American Masters premiered a fascinating documentary about Billie Jean King, the first time in their history profiling a sports figure. Released on September 10th, the show commemorates the 40th anniversary of the now legendary "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs on September 20th, 1973.
I was quite young when this famous tennis match took place but I do remember well Billie Jean and Bobby's names being bandied around on the news and on Johnny Carson. And now I understand — being much older and having watched the PBS show — what the fuss was all about. Prior to his match with Billie Jean, Bobby Riggs — playboy, juvenile extraordinaire, attention seeker, "hustler**", "super moocher", "demonic elf" — challenged Australian tennis pro Margaret Court, 30 years old and 25 years his junior, to a tennis match.
According to an article on Wikipedia — "He came out of retirement to challenge one of the world's greatest female players to a match, claiming that the female game was inferior and that a top female player could not beat him". Taking place on May 13th, 1973, it is now known as the "Mother's Day Massacre", as Riggs pummeled Court...on the court...in two easy sets of 6–2 and 6–1.
After the Riggs and Court match, Billie Jean King accepted his challenge (after previously declining) and their ensuing showdown became a HUGE spectacle. As if Bobby wasn't already a spectacle in and of himself (see photos below). As you'll see in the documentary Billie Jean trained obsessively — physically and mentally — and took it very seriously. She knew everything was riding on this match, not only for herself professionally, but for women in general. And Bobby had to win "because his mouth has put him way out on the line".
If you don't know the outcome, I'll tell you right now: she won. Who knows how much of a humbling experience it was for Bobby, but for women, it was a monumental confirmation of our determination, stamina and strength. Conspiracy theories gradually surfaced that Riggs threw the game on purpose. He later took a lie detector test to prove he didn't. And what happened between the two of them after the match? Billie Jean and Bobby remained on friendly terms until his death in 1995 from prostate cancer. Billie Jean could have shoved that in his face but she never did. She was a gracious, humble winner. Not to mention compassionate humanitarian, defender of equality, and an awesome role model for women.
Even if tennis is not your game I bet you'll find the documentary fascinating like I did. You might even "LOVE" it.
There was no publicity stunt too zany for Riggs...
Excellent writing in this article, BTW. Bobby Riggs — "obviously no Mark Spitz"! That made me chuckle (especially if you know the powerhouse athlete Mark Spitz was).
**According to Wikipedia, Riggs made "$105,000 ($1,733,000 today) in 1939 by betting on himself at Wimbledon to win all three championships: the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles...Riggs was a well-known golf and tennis hustler and made a living by placing bets on himself to win matches against other, apparently better, players. To entice fresh victims to play him, he would handicap himself with weird devices like using a frying pan instead of a tennis racquet for the match or playing a round of golf with only one club. Whatever the handicap, Riggs generally won his bets."