“Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozy, and don’t be afraid to hit the ball.” - Billie Jean King.
When Billie Jean King stepped on the tennis court for the famous Battle of the Sexes match in 1973, she wasn’t just battling for personal honor - she was fighting for a seat at the table for all women. The tennis pro’s famous face-off with Bobby Riggs has become the stuff of sporting legend, but for King it was much more than just sports. She had been a champion of women’s equality since she was a young girl, and this match was a chance to put that struggle on a national stage and fight for gender parity for all women.Billie Jean King items from HOMAGE. Celebrating BJK's win over Bobby Riggs.
Riggs had been a successful player in the 1930s and 1940s, and at one time was ranked number one in the world. But the Bobby Riggs of the 1970s was a self-described male chauvinist with gambling debts to pay and the attitude to match. Riggs had trash-talked the women’s game as boring, and female players as weak - he claimed he could beat any top female player even at the ripe age of 55 years old. His initial challenge to top seed Margaret Court went his way, 6-2, 6-1. But Billie Jean King was a different story.
By 1973, King was already rising the ranks of women’s tennis in meteoric fashion. She was the first woman on the circuit to earn more than $100,000 in prize money, and in 1972 was named Time’s “Sportsperson of the Year”. She was well on her way to earning the 20 Wimbledon singles and doubles titles she would eventually claim over the course of her epic career.
Held at the Houston Astrodome and watched by around 90 million people worldwide, the Battle of the Sexes was a spectacle from start to finish. Riggs and King were carried onto the court on a gold litter and rickshaw respectively, Riggs by toga-clad young men and King by young women. Sponsored by Sugar Daddy, Riggs wore the candy-company’s yellow and red jacket for the first few games, while King gifted Riggs a squealing pig and rocked blue suede shoes. But when it came to the tennis, King was all business. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said in a later interview. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” Billie Jean King’s fight was always for something larger than herself.
With a strategy that relied on wearing down the aging Riggs with baseline rallies, King took the first set 6-4. After breaking her serve in the first game of the second set, she went on to win that set anyway, 6-4. And by the third set, the die was cast. Riggs lost 6-3, and King was victorious. A chastened Riggs said after the match, “This is the worst thing in the world I’ve ever done.”
The Battle of the Sexes ignited an unprecedented interest in women’s sports, and along with the passage of Title IX in 1972, helped win women athletes more recognition and respect, and encouraged all women to advocate for equal pay and equal rights. And Billie Jean King’s battle for equality was only just beginning. Throughout her career, she advocated for equal rights for women. It was in part thanks to her efforts that in 1973 the U.S. Open became the first tournament to pay equal prize money for men and women.
That advocacy continues to this day. This Women’s History Month and always, HOMAGE is proud to partner with the BJK Leadership Initiative in raising funds to help ensure that those in positions of power in the workplace represent the diversity of the world, and to continue the hard fight for equality. As Billie Jean King herself says, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
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