The Battle of the Sexes

 

 

Bobby Riggs vs Billie-Jean King, 20th September, 1973, Houston.

Richard Krajicek, winner of the men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1996, once called female players ‘fat,
lazy pigs’. He took some flak and lost some friends. Pat Cash, another champion, referred to a leading
woman player as more suitable for the shot put than a tennis court.

There is nostalgia, not for the sentiments but for the freedom to be outspoken. Both players remained
notable for their sporting achievements, not their opinions.

Neither were banned from social media or lost advertising contracts, still less were prosecuted or
cautioned for hate speech.

Bobby Riggs, born two generations earlier, made them sound like feminists.

He was a good humoured gambler from LA. In 1939 he backed himself to win the singles, the doubles
and the mixed doubles in a treble at Wimbledon, and collected.

Riggs at Wimbledon

The war deprived him of what would have been his prime as a player, but he was ranked number one
in the world in 1946 and 1947. His game was based on dinks, lobs, flicks and placement. He would
avow to anyone willing to listen how much he loved women, and how much he believed they
belonged in the kitchen and the bedroom.

Billie-Jean King was born in California. Her father was a firefighter, a Methodist, and a sportsman. She
saved up to earn the $8 cost of a racquet and, aged 11, started to play on the public courts. By 1973
she had won Wimbledon four times, the US Open three times, and the French and the Australian once
each. She was 29.

She was outspoken, on and off court. She mocked the establishment, wanting tennis to become a
working class sport, and threatened not to defend her US title unless each gender were paid the same.

Billie-Jean was outspoken on and off the court

For some years Bobby Riggs had claimed that the top women couldn’t beat anyone but each other,
certainly not a decent junior and not even an old man like him. He said they earned their money by
standing on the shoulders of the men. Finally he challenged Billie-Jean to an exhibition to prove that
he, at 55, could wipe the floor with her. She refused, on the grounds that it was a gimmick.

Margaret Court, at the end of her career and with over twenty grand slam titles to her name, was not
so squeamish. The match was fixed for May 13th, 1973. In what became known as the Mother’s Day
Massacre Riggs won 6-2, 6-1.

As might have been expected, he didn’t keep his pleasure private. He was pictured on the front cover
of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated, crowing.

Something stirred in Billie-Jean. She leant one way, then the other. She sought advice, then ignored it.
She hoped the feeling would go away. When it didn’t she told her agent she was going to play Bobby
Riggs and beat him.

One of Rigg’s complaints was that women were being paid the same as men to work less hard. They
played over three sets, not five. King told Riggs she wanted the best of five.

Over 30,000 bought tickets for The Battle of the Sexes.

King was carried into the arena by six bare chested male hunks. Riggs was flanked by a number of
young women not wearing much.

It was common at the time to refer to men like him as male chauvinist pigs. Mindful of this, King
presented him with a piglet. Riggs accepted gracefully, clearly flattered.

There was a carnival atmosphere. When play began the smiles faded. Riggs, a warm bookies favourite,
raced to a 3-1 lead. Men across America prepared to celebrate the superiority of their sex.

Unlike Riggs, King, when young, had had to fight for a court to play on. No-one had ever given her
anything. She started lengthening the points, making her opponent run. Not for the first time she
forced her way back into a match, then took the set 6-4.

Riggs was not known for his great comebacks. King kept her foot on his throat and won in straight
sets.

At the end King dropped her racquet and held her arms aloft, standing motionless. Riggs, the
gentleman, stepped over the net, shook her hand and spoke words of congratulation. Had he been a
French general he would have thanked the assembled, retired to his room with a bottle of whisky, and
shot himself.

He wanted to win and tried his best. King refused to lose.

Riggs, the unreconstructed and unapologetic sexist, and King, the activist, feminist and, in due course,
self-outed lesbian, became close friends. The night before his death, twenty two years later, from cancer,
they spoke on the phone. According to King she told Riggs she loved him.