Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes

In a highly publicized tennis match, Billie Jean King triumphed over tennis hustler Bobby Riggs, marking a major turning point in women’s sports and furthering the cause of equality for women in general.

Summary of Event

The mantra of the 1970’s in the United States was “equality for women.” As the movement for women’s rights experienced a resurgence, the U.S. Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, requiring that schools provide girls and women with athletic opportunities equal to those provided to boys and men. The Equal Rights Amendment awaited ratification by the states, and the U.S. Supreme Court established a woman’s right to abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973). Along with these developments, on September 20, 1973, in a nationally televised event dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” one of the world’s top-ranked female tennis players, Billie Jean King, defeated Bobby Riggs, a fifty-five-year-old male tennis hustler, in an unforgettable tennis match. This event rocked the tennis world and contributed to the movement toward equality between women and men in all aspects of American society. Sports;tennis
Women;athletic achievements
Battle of the Sexes (tennis)
[kw]Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes (Sept. 20, 1973)
[kw]Battle of the Sexes, Tennis’s (Sept. 20, 1973)
[kw]Sexes, Tennis’s Battle of the (Sept. 20, 1973)
Tennis;Battle of the Sexes
Women;athletic achievements
Battle of the Sexes (tennis)
[g]North America;Sept. 20, 1973: Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes[01270]
[g]United States;Sept. 20, 1973: Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes[01270]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 20, 1973: Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes[01270]
[c]Sports;Sept. 20, 1973: Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes[01270]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 20, 1973: Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes[01270]
King, Billie Jean
Riggs, Bobby
Court, Margaret

By the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King had won ten singles titles in tennis’s “grand slam” tournaments and had been ranked the world’s number one women’s tennis player six times. She was named Sportsperson of the Year in 1972 by Sports Illustrated and had surpassed $100,000 in earnings for an entire tennis season. An outspoken advocate for equal prize money in men’s and women’s professional sports, King jeopardized her career many times to promote the cause of women’s rights, particularly when she formed the Virginia Slims women’s tennis circuit, when she unionized players to establish the Women’s Tennis Association, Women’s Tennis Association[Womens Tennis Association] and when she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation.

After initially rejecting lucrative proposals, King accepted the greatest challenge of her life: an offer to play a match against the self-promoting tennis hustler Bobby Riggs. It was true that Riggs had been ranked number one in the world among male tennis players in 1946 and 1947, but by 1949, his reputation as a hustler and gambler had superseded his professional tennis championship record. In fact, Riggs was known to place bets on his own matches. King was roused to take on the challenge of playing Riggs by the sound defeat that Riggs had recently dealt the world’s current top-ranked female tennis player, Margaret Court. On May 13, 1973, Riggs had defeated Court 6-2, 6-1, in what became known as the “Mother’s Day massacre,” a brutal setback for women’s tennis. Following that match, Riggs rose to the national limelight as the poster boy for “male chauvinist pigs.”

Responding to Riggs’s continuing media coverage, in which he taunted that “women belong in the bedroom,” not in the sports arena, King finally accepted an offer to play a best-of-five-sets match against the wisecracking Riggs. King was determined to break the gender barrier, defy the odds, and open doors that had long been closed to female athletes. The stage for the Battle of the Sexes was set: On September 20, 1973, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, Riggs and King would play a five-set match under regulation tennis rules. The match would be televised nationally by the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the victor would claim a $100,000 winner-take-all purse plus $150,000 in fringe benefits.

Billie Jean King jokingly threatens Bobby Riggs, her opponent in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Prior to the match, King isolated herself in South Carolina, where she practiced her tennis strokes, toughened her mental and physical abilities, analyzed the Riggs-Court match, and developed her play strategy. Often discouraged by comments made by women players on the tennis tour, King at times questioned her own confidence, but she remained focused on preparing for the match against Riggs. In contrast, Riggs spent the weeks leading up to the match grabbing as much media attention as possible. Appearing on major television programs, giving interviews to every reporter, and earning a caricature of himself on the cover of Time magazine, Riggs burrowed his way into the consciousness of American society. As the day of the match approached, the media frenzy intensified.

Finally, on September 20, before a live crowd of 30,492 fans in the Houston Astrodome and more than 50 million television viewers worldwide, Riggs and King met on the tennis court. Television;sports broadcasts Riggs entered the stadium on a shimmering red carriage with gold wheels, surrounded by buxom beauties; he was wearing a yellow jacket emblazoned with a red Sugar Daddy candy logo across the back. King was borne into the arena Cleopatra style, lounging on a feathered palanquin transported by toga-wearing muscular hunks. The moment the two players made their entrance, the stadium crowd went wild. Camera flashbulbs fired, and fans in the stands waved cardboard signs featuring such slogans as “Libber vs. Lobber.” Applause resounded as cries of “I love Bobby” and “I love Billie” echoed in the dome. At their court meeting, Riggs presented King with a two-foot Sugar Daddy; in exchange, King gifted Riggs with a pig named Robert Larimore Riggs. ABC provided the legendary, abrasive sportscaster Howard Cosell Cosell, Howard and professional tennis player Rosemary “Rosie” Casals to exchange barbs and to announce the play-by-play.

In the first set, King dominated Riggs; she held serve, attacked the net, and lobbed balls from one end of the court to the other. Riggs’s serves and volleys were no match for King’s speed, athleticism, and determination. On a double fault, a worn-out Riggs ceded the first set to King, 6-4. Refusing to break under pressure in the second set, King scored with backhand, baseline, and half-volley winners. On her own serve, King won the second set 6-3. In the third set, clearly showing fatigue and despair, Riggs resolved to a 6-3 loss. The match was over. King had defeated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. With childlike abandon, King tossed her wooden racket into the air and trotted to the net to meet Riggs, the hustler who had been hustled. The theatrical performance was over. After ABC ended its telecast, heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman handed King a check for $100,000.


King’s victory made headline news. In its story about the match on September 21, 1973, The New York Times asserted that Billie Jean King had struck “a proud blow for herself and women around the world.” This event was not a simple tennis match between two professional tennis players; rather, it represented one of the many struggles in the history of women’s rights in the United States. Set against the backdrop of the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the gay rights movement, King’s victory over Riggs helped to lay the groundwork for a cultural revolution. Education Amendments Act (1972)
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (1972)[Title 09 of the Education Amendments Act]
Tennis;Battle of the Sexes

The match between King and Riggs constituted a historic moment when the imaginations of American girls and women went wild. It encouraged women to believe that gender equality—in sports and beyond—was an attainable goal. The 1973 Battle of the Sexes contributed to leveling the playing field for girls and women; it gave girls hope that they would have opportunities that had been denied to generations of females before them. In addition, largely as a result of Billie Jean King’s efforts, subsequent female tennis players such as Chris Evert, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams received recognition and prize money equal to those received by male tennis players. Tennis;Battle of the Sexes
Women;athletic achievements
Battle of the Sexes (tennis)

Further Reading

  • Amdur, Neil. “Mrs. King Defeats Bobby Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Amid a Circus Atmosphere.” The New York Times, September 21, 1973, p. A1. This front-page account of the Battle of the Sexes and the results of the match between King and Riggs shows the importance of the event at the time.
  • Collins, Bud. Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia. Toronto: Sport Classic Books, 2003. Good source for statistical information, player profiles, and a brief history of tennis tournaments since 1919.
  • LeCompte, Tom. The Last Sure Thing: The Life and Times of Bobby Riggs. Easthampton, Mass.: Skunkworks, 2003. Well-written, comprehensive biography explores Riggs’s professional triumphs and personal failures.
  • Roberts, Selena. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game. New York: Crown, 2005. A sports columnist takes the reader on a journey through the early years of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, their careers as top-ranked tennis players, and their encounter in 1973. Also discusses the personal and professional lives of King and Riggs after the Battle of the Sexes.

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