Texas, Houston Astrodome stadium, over 30.000 people in the audience, September 20, 1973. Winner-take-all prize of $100.000, 90 million spectators Worldwide. Wow!
Now that we enumerated the facts and the digits, let’s get down to the bigger picture.
Billie Jean King is a monumental figure in the history of women’s Tennis and not only. The American won 39 Grand Slam titles in her illustrious career: in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
King was the first player to win a WTA Tournament. A vivid fighter for equality in Tennis and not only, but this is not the place for other topics. She was the first female Tennis player to win $100.000 in prize money in a calendar year and World number 1.
But Billie Jean stood for more than that. She is a leader and a visionary.
Bobby Riggs was World number 1 in men’s Tennis in the ’30s and ’40s. He was an absolute showman. He came up with a brilliant idea. Hiding his true vision under the mask of male chauvinism, he, alongside King, succeeded to grow the popularity of the sport that we all love.
Riggs was just playing a part, but wasn’t a misogynist. He just needed to stir up the people’s interest by delivering shocking and outrageous statements.
Provoking firstly Margaret Court to a Battle of the sexes match, the then women’s World number 1, he managed to crush her in their exhibition match: 6-2, 6-1. This result forced Billie Jean King to accept an exhibition match with Riggs, as she was a leader and had to lead by example.
The match King vs Riggs went a long way beyond Tennis. It was a statement, a war. King fought for women to be paid as much as men and to be respected. She never claimed that women’s Tennis is better than the male one, but that they have to be shown the deserved respect.
And King indeed won in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Many fans and pundits claimed that it wasn’t only a battle of the sexes, but a battle of youth vs old. King was 29 years old at the time of the match and Riggs 55.
Both players made history when they made this match happen. It opened a lot of doors, way beyond Tennis.
If Bobby Riggs was just playing a part when saying he is a male chauvinist, Jack Kramer, a respected former Tennis player and commentator at that time, was considered by King a true misogynist. She forced ABC, the television who broadcast the match, to drop Kramer as a commentator for the match.
He doesn’t believe in women’s tennis. Why should he be part of this match? He doesn’t believe in half of the match. I’m not playing. Either he goes—or I go.
Billie Jean was incredibly brave when she left USTA (United States Tennis Association) because she didn’t feel respected, as the prize money for women were very low in comparison with men’s. Jack Kramer was the leading promoter of USTA and he decided to kick out King out of the Association. She started a new league alongside other top Tennis players, showing initiative, courage and vision.
This match wasn’t about who’s better: women or men. That’s not the discussion. I believe neither. Both sexes have their own qualities and only by joining forces we can create great things.
And by the way, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs formed a life lasting friendship.