September 20, 1973: Game, set, match!
Even with the carnival atmosphere, and hype more suited to professional wrestling than tennis, Billie Jean King’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 rout of Bobby Riggs tonight was a major triumph for women in sports, and for the revitalized feminist movement itself.
Though King was intently focused on giving Riggs some lessons in how the game is played, he wasn’t her only opponent and tonight wasn’t just about tennis. King was battling against all the traditional assumptions and ancient stereotypes about men and women that the swaggering Riggs proudly embraced and came to personify in the months since he first issued his challenge to the world’s best women tennis players.
But finally, after months of verbal volleying, here they were, at a packed Houston Astrodome, playing for a $100,000 winner-take-all prize before a live television audience of about 50 million in the U.S., plus viewers in 36 other countries, with Howard Cosell and Rosemary Casals present to do an uninhibited commentary on ABC.
Male supremacists confidently awaited a repeat of Riggs’ far less publicized 6-2, 6-1 trouncing of Margaret Court on Mother’s Day, and a definitive defeat of King to reassure them that feminism was just another passing fad, and no real challenge to the status quo.
Schoolgirls, whose opportunities to play competitive sports are now rapidly expanding, and who see King as a role model, tuned in as well. Their mothers and grandmothers, who remembered when there were no girls’ teams in some sports when they were growing up, or whose teams never had the funding or respect they deserved, were beside them, eagerly looking forward to applauding any shot that got past Riggs. The claim that men are so athletically superior to women that even a man who hadn’t won at Wimbledon since 1939 could easily defeat a woman who won there two months ago was about to be tested, and it made for irresistible, real-life TV drama.
But before some no-nonsense tennis, another bit of flamboyance that the sport had never seen before, and is unlikely to witness again. King entered the Astrodome first, on a gold litter that could have been straight out of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” carried by several well-conditioned male track and field athletes from nearby Rice University. Riggs then entered in a gold-wheeled rickshaw pulled by six professional models in tight red and gold outfits that left no mystery as to why he dubbed them “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” And just to make sure that none of the 30,492 fans in the stands would get bored waiting for the match to begin, a band blared march music while clowns and other costumed characters frolicked amid large banners being waved by champagne-sipping spectators who had paid up to $100 for some of the better seats.
Finally came the mutual introductions of the players, and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Riggs presented King with a giant “Sugar Daddy” caramel lollypop courtesy of his principal sponsor. King responded by giving him a live—and presumably male chauvinist—pig. The piglet, named “Larimore Hustle” (Larimore is Bobby’s middle name, and hustling his real game) was one of the few things King sent his way this evening that Riggs was able to intercept. In the first set alone, King won 26 of her 34 points with shots that Riggs’ racquet couldn’t even touch. By the end of the match it was 70 out of 109. Riggs had claimed that women just didn’t have the nerves to play under pressure, but it was he who was double-faulting into the net when it was his turn to serve.
This wasn’t just a win. It was a big enough drubbing that there will be no debate about whether luck played any part in the result, or if King just had an exceptionally good night. After running him around the court to the point of exhaustion, King left Riggs with just enough strength to leap the net and congratulate the winner as Billie Jean tossed her racquet high into the air. Then, in one of those unforgettable TV moments, King stood in the middle of the Astrodome with the huge Winner’s Trophy raised high over her head as the crowd cheered itself hoarse.
Surprisingly, Riggs made no excuses, and was among the first to say he’d been outplayed. In the interview room afterward, he said: “Billie Jean is too good. Too quick. I got the ball past her but she not only returned it but made a better shot than I did. Too good. Too quick. She deserved to win it.”
Despite having recently won her fifth Wimbledon singles title, Billie Jean said: “I feel this is the culmination of my 19 years in tennis.” Not only did she think that her win was good for women, but for the game as well, with millions of people getting their first exposure to it, declaring:
I’ve played tennis since I was 11 and I love it very much. When I was young I thought it was a sport just for the rich and white. There were a lot of non-tennis people who saw tennis for the first time tonight. You know I believe in spectator participation so a lot of my dreams came true tonight.
This evening Billie Jean King changed not only tennis, but the country’s attitude toward women athletes and women’s equality in general. In just two hours and four minutes, King may have given nearly as big a boost to women’s sports as last year’s passage of Title IX, which will assure that the girls who are inspired by her feat will finally get the same access to school sports as the boys, and enjoy the same lifelong benefits from participation. Thank you, Billie Jean!