This Day in Tennis History: “The Battle of the Sexes” Anniversary
by Danielle Diniz | Cornell University
On September 20, 1973 the “battle of the sexes” came to a head — Billy Jean King put her skills on the line as she took on Bobby Riggs in an epic, three set tennis match. What many people don’t know is that there were actually three matches in history that have taken place in the same fashion. Riggs, 55, first played world number one, Margaret Court, and although it was supposed to be two out of three sets, the match was not even close, resulting in a 6-2, 6-1 win for Riggs. A man with an unforgettable competitive spirit and a love for shenanigans, Riggs did not waste any time setting his sights on beating King only four months later. To everyone’s surprise he lost in straights, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
There was much more than tennis to watch in Houston that day. Viewers got quite a show as both players seemed to vie for most memorable when making their entrances.King was carried into the Astrodome like Cleopatra by four shirtless men, while Riggs appeared in a rickshaw pulled by models (also known as “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies”). Unlike Court, King had already studied how to defeat Riggs by putting a defensive strategy of mostly ground-strokes into effect. Despite being hit lobs and deep balls (which are more easily handled from the far back of the court), King calmly and coolly became the first female tennis player to beat a man in that type of forum.
However, we can not forget Riggs’s talents. He reigned as world number one in 1946 and 1947, but even before that in 1939 he was an “amateur” world number one as he had made the finals at Roland Garros, won Wimbledon (in singles, doubles and mixed doubles) and the U.S. Open. Although this righty, with a one-handed backhand, lost $100,000 to King, his younger years really give insight into his talent and perseverance. In Los Angeles, he had played ping-pong until age 11, but by 18 he was ranked fourth in the country as a junior.
We can analyze his style as King did before their showdown: he was smart, quick and consistent, which are three things difficult to defeat. King, in her career, collected 39 Grand Slam titles across singles, doubles and mixed doubles and secured the number one spot for five years, holding off an obscene amount of the greats, including Maria Navratilova, Chris Evert and Court. In my eyes they were even-keeled, despite differences in age, strategy and score claiming one much more dominant.
The match, in all its glory, turned Riggs into a hotel room recluse for a few hours, but also made a huge statement for women. So many people, even out of the 90 million who watched, had little faith in what a woman could produce on the court — whether they thought it to be lack of strength or talent. Needless to say, King proved them wrong. As Neil Amdur of the New York Times wrote of King, “Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women.”
Riggs’s tennis legacy lives on in his grandson, Danny Riggs, who plays competitively here at Cornell. In juniors he had attained a national ranking of 19 and the five-star recruit performed well at singles and doubles last year. As tennis slowly but surely makes a surge back into pop culture, hopefully this anniversary could incite even more of a reason to pick up a racquet.Danielle is a NGJ Staff Writer and a junior double majoring in English and Theater at Cornell University, with a particular interest in Shakespeare. She also writes for the Cornell Daily Sun.