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The chauvinist claim that ignited tennis's 'Battle of the Sexes'

·News Reporter
·3-min read
Billie Jean King plays Bobby Riggs in 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match. Source: Getty Images
The 'Battle of the Sexes' tennis match was a significant moment in women’s sports. (Getty Images)

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series.

On this day on 20 September, 1973, the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match was played between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The historic match, which took place inside the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, US, saw top-ranked women’s player King, 29, beat former world No 1 men's player Riggs, 55, in three straight sets.

It was a significant moment in the second wave of the women’s movement during the 1970s, as Riggs was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist who claimed women were inferior and couldn’t handle the pressure of the game.

The King-Riggs match was the most-watched tennis match of all time, drawing over 30,000 spectators to the Astrodome and reaching an estimated TV audience of 90 million viewers worldwide.

What happened?

King, who had already established herself as a progressive force in women’s tennis, entered the arena atop a gold throne carried by men dressed as ancient slaves, while her opponent arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models dubbed “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies”.

It was clear from the start that this wasn’t any tennis match. It was definitely a “Battle of the Sexes”.

Riggs, who had previously claimed that “women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen in that order”, flaunted his chauvinism by wearing a “Sugar Daddy” jacket during the first three games of the match.

Billie Jean King on gold throne carried by men dressed as ancient slaves. Source: Getty Images
Billie Jean King entered the arena atop a gold throne carried by men dressed as ancient slaves. (Getty Images)

However, the out-of-shape Riggs quickly lost his bravado, as King kept volleying shots past him to win the first set.

King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and celebrated by tossing her racket. Riggs hopped the net and whispered “I underestimated you” into her ear.

From the moment King bounced the ball for her first serve inside the Astrodome, she knew winning could change the lives of women everywhere by proving they weren’t the weaker sex.

"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem," said King, who believed it was her duty to fight for gender equality in sports.

What happened next?

In the aftermath of the “Battle of the Sexes”, King continued her legendary tennis career, eventually retiring in 1984 after winning 39 singles and doubles Grand Slam championships.

The “mother of modern sports” remained active as a coach, commentator and advocate for women’s sports throughout the years.

In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, was renamed in King’s honour. During the dedication ceremony, tennis legend John McEnroe called her “the single most important person in the history of women’s sports".

Billie Jean King talks with the media prior to playing a tennis match. Source: Getty Images
Billie Jean King remains the most influential name in women’s sports to this day. (Getty Images)

King also became prominent activist for women’s rights and gay rights following the match and the landmark 1981 revelation of her homosexuality.

Today, the “Battle of the Sexes” remains a landmark victory for women’s rights and feminism and was the subject of a 2017 movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

Billie Jean King remains the most influential name in women’s sports, a life-long equality campaigner and a trailblazer in sport and beyond.

Watch: Battle Of The Sexes movie interview

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