You’ve probably heard a bit about the newly released Battle of the Sexes movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. The two play real-life tennis stars, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs who competed in a huge match in 1973 to prove whether women were comparable to men in the sport. It’s an important story to tell right now, because as much as the concept seems archaic, there are a lot of people who still don’t get it. Just this July, tennis player Andy Murray had to correct a journalist who overlooked Serena Williams when he said that Sam Querrey was the first American to advance to the semi-finals at Wimbledon since 2009. So yeah, this story is still as relevant as ever. And here it is.
Interestingly, King v. Riggs was not the first ‘Battle of the Sexes’ in which Bobby Riggs competed in 1973. Fifty-five year-old Riggs was pretty restless in retirement and chose to get himself back in the spotlight by slamming women’s tennis. His first target was King, but when she initially refused to play him, 30 year-old Australian Margaret Court took up the offer. On May 13 they played what became known as the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre’ with Riggs taking the win.
Running on his victory high, Riggs continued taunting female players and King eventually agreed to the September 20 $100,000 winner-take-all match. After a summer of sexist taunts from Riggs, the match turned into a huge spectacle, watched by 90 million prime-time viewers world-wide. Twenty-nine year-old King had far more energy than Riggs and beat him in three sets. He was reportedly humble in defeat and even conceded that he had underestimated her.
The film also chronicles the other events unfolding in King’s personal life that summer of 1973. Having been married to her husband, Larry King, for eight years, she was also in the midst of an affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. King later became the first professional female athlete to come out as a lesbian.
King’s win was also a huge symbolic and cultural win for women. In the same year, the U.S. Open was the first tennis championship to award equal prize money to both men and women. King also paved the way and emboldened female athletes the world over and gained international respect for women in sport. Her win certainly didn’t mean the end of sexism in sports though (duh).
It wasn’t until 2007 that all four Grand Slams (Wimbledon was the hold-out) offered equal prize money and there are still men who believe that top-ranking female players wouldn’t be a match for their male counterparts. Just this past June, John McEnroe (who also has a movie out soon about a famous match he played in) told NPR that Serena Williams would ‘be like 700 in the world’ if she played the men’s circuit. Oh boy.
Still a long way to go, but the match that unfolded in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was a historical moment for feminism and women in sport.