In 1973, Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs and won. Her victory changed womens tennis but todays game is still no feminist paradise
Billie Jean Kings entrance on to a Houston tennis court on 20 September 1973 was more suited to a Las Vegas stage than a sports stadium. The top-ranked 29-year-old player arrived atop a gold throne framed by flamingo-pink feathers and carried by four shirtless men. Her opponent, the 55-year-old former No1 player Bobby Riggs, arrived on a rickshaw pulled by models dubbed Bobbys Bosom Buddies. This wasnt a regular tennis match. It was the Battle of the Sexes.
The Astrodome was packed with just over 30,000 people a record for any tennis game and the atmosphere was more Super Bowl than Wimbledon. Fans drank champagne, cheerleaders danced, and a band played each players theme song: I Am Woman for King and Conquest for Riggs. Some men wore T-shirts featuring cartoon pigs supporting Riggs that read I am a male chauvinist, while women in the audience held signs that read I love BJK.
King wore a wool cardigan over her tennis dress, wire-framed round glasses, and a giddy smile. A very attractive young lady, one broadcaster said, his voice reaching out to the 90 million Americans watching the match on TV. If she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, youd have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen kiss.
Though King wasnt normally a flashy dresser, she wore blue suede running shoes and a dress with a sequined patch for the occasion. Riggs wore a bright yellow sports jacket with the words Sugar Daddy emblazoned across the back.
King didnt mind the gimmicks. She knew that beneath the circus-like spectacle, the match had the potential to change the lives of women everywhere.
Later this year, a Hollywood version of the Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell will be released, but its hard to imagine a similar match happening today. Though there have been other male v female tennis matches, none have been based on the sexist premise that a womans athletic worth depends on whether or not she can beat a man. In 1973, feminism wasnt mainstream and women couldnt even apply for their own credit cards. Today we have female powerhouses such as Sheryl Sandberg, Beyonc, and Hillary Clinton. Last year, the womens US Open final sold out before the mens. Nobody would suggest that Serena Williams isnt a world-class athlete if she failed to win in straight sets against Pete Sampras.