Women's tennis has always been thought of as inferior to mens. They get less pay and generally, a professional women's tennis player, even the top ranked player in the world could not compete with almost any male professional, even one rated as low as 100. Men just have more physical strength and quickness than the average women. That is not a knock on women, it is how nature made men and women. That might change one day, but for now, that is still how it is. And how it was then, back in 1973.
"After having to get by on $100 a week as a playground instructor and student at Los Angeles State College while at the same time shining at Wimbledon, King became a significant force in opening tennis to professionalism. She carried a deep sense of injustice from her amateur days.
With the birth of the "Open" era in 1968, King turned pro. This time she received more than a trophy for winning Wimbledon. She was on her way to earning $1,966,487 in career prize money."
I remember only very vague things about "the battle of the sexes" match in 1973. Certainly, it was hyped all over the place and everyone was talking about it. But, I was only 8 at the time and I was much more interested in watching Batman, The Flintstones, The Brady Bunch and The Price Is Right. If I paid any attention to sports it was hockey or baseball. Tennis was not on my radar in any way.
I tried to remember the first time I actually picked up a tennis racquet and played and I cannot remember a time before high school when I did. It simply wasn't that popular back in the early 70s. That all changed in the days of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the mid to late 70s. Before that time, it was a fairly low profile sport.
For whatever reason I remember the hype that was the lead up to the big battle of the sexes tennis match. I don't know that I truly understood all the dynamics, but I understood it meant something to a lot of people.
I do remember the night they had the match. I certainly did not get to watch it on TV, as it was way past my bedtime. I do however remember the radio reports of Billie Jean King whipping Bobby Riggs and how that was a great day for women everywhere. To this day, I have never seen more than a few seconds of the actual match.
So, why was it significant?
Of course, we all know that the actual win meant nothing. Bobby Riggs was an old man and not in any condition to take on any professional tennis player of any gender. While male professional tennis players are far superior to women professional tennis players, the average man could not even hope to compete with a female professional, and an old man like Bobby Riggs had no hope against the top female player in the world, in the prime of her career. The victory was symbolic, as at the time the women's movement was in full swing and any victory that brought light to that was significant.
Bobby Riggs, in addition to have been a very good tennis player in his heyday, was known as a showman and a hustler.
In 1973, Riggs saw an opportunity to both make money and to draw attention to the sport of tennis. 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, even at the age of 55. He challenged Margaret Court, 30 years old and the top female player in the world. In their May 13, 1973, Mother's Day match in Ramona, California, Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep an unprepared Court off balance. His easy 6–2, 6–1 victory landed Riggs on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.
Riggs had originally challenged Billie Jean King, but she had declined. Following Court's loss to Riggs, King accepted his challenge, and on September 20, 1973, the two met in the Houston Astrodome, in a match billed as The Battle of the Sexes. King beat Riggs, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 for the $100,000 winner-take-all prize. Unlike a similar match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova in 1992, in which the rules were altered to favor the female player, this match was played using the normal rules of tennis.
So, what did it all mean, to a young boy of 8 and to a world in which women took a back seat to men?
Once Riggs beat Margaret Court, King thought she had no choice but to play and defeat Riggs, who was well past his prime and an old man by then.
"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."
The "Battle of the Sexes" captured the imagination of the country, not just tennis enthusiasts. On Sept. 20, 1973 in Houston, she was carried out on the Astrodome court like Cleopatra, in a gold litter held aloft by four muscular men dressed as ancient slaves. Riggs was wheeled in on a rickshaw pulled by sexy models in tight outfits, "Bobby's Bosom Buddies."
-Larry Schwartz in the above link.
"She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. "Moreover, like (Arnold) Palmer, she has made a whole sports boom because of the singular force of her presence."
In those days, women players received much less money than men earned. King's voice was heard loudest in the quest for equality. When a new women's tour was started, with Philip Morris sponsoring a new brand of cigarette, King was perceived as a "radical" heading a breakaway group. The Virginia Slims Tour was marketed with the slogan "You've Come a Long Way, Baby."
Things improved financially. King became the first woman athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a year (1971), and President Richard Nixon called to congratulate her.
She convinced her colleagues to form a players' union, and the Women's Tennis Association was born. King was its first president in 1973. King, who received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase did for winning the U.S. Open in 1972, said if the prize money wasn't equal by the next year, she wouldn't play, and she didn't think the other women would either. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
None of that would have happened if an old man and hustler hadn't challenged her to a match he had no hope of winning. As an 8 year old boy, I had no idea any of that was going on in my world, but it was. To me she would have been just a tennis player. To girls around the world, she was their hero and a symbol of what they might be able to achieve in a new era of perceived equality.
My sister was never athletic or wanted to play any sports. She liked dolls and baking, so in my world, this was something very foreign to me. To the best of my knowledge, other than square dancing, boys and girls didn't even take gym class together. There was a clear separation when it came to sports. There was always a perception that boys would hurt girls if they played together.
In 1975, Seventeen magazine polled its readers and found that King was the most admired woman in the world. Golda Meir, who had been Israel's prime minister until the previous year, finished second.
"In the '70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes," she said. "We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports."
Boys didn't play sports with girls. That is just how it was. Those were the times I was born into. I didn't realize it on September 20, 1973, both that day was going to change the way I would be expected to interact with females. It might have taken a few more years for that to work its way through the system of society, but it did. Certainly, by 1979, when I was in high school, boys and girls played sports together and in many cases, had gym class together.
It had to be a spectacle to be remembered forever. It had to be a media draw to make a difference. In front of a worldwide TV audience of 90 million, Billie knew social change needed witnesses to move people.