Billie Jean King: The Day a King was Crowned

Emma Stone returns to the silver screen this autumn with her portrayal of tennis legend Billie Jean King. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tells the story of a historic tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs. But beneath the dramatisation and Hollywood hogwash lies a true story even more incredible.

The Setting

1973 was a time when bell-bottom pants and avocado bathrooms were considered vogue. These weren’t the most unfortunate staples of the era though; male chauvinism was also a popular ideal.

Women were making strides towards equality. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of women’s rights in the case of Roe vs Wade. Women’s Equality Day was celebrated for the first time. But women were still subject to widespread prejudice. And a case of female belittlement was beginning to rise in the world of tennis, surrounding ex-pro Bobby Riggs.

Bobby Riggs

Bobby Riggs was the living embodiment of male misogyny. A man who proudly proclaimed “If I am a male chauvinist pig, I want to be the number one pig”. Riggs was a former men’s number 1 and Wimbledon Triple Crown winner. He has been described as a ‘showman’, with his career over he was desperate to remain in the limelight.

He was willing to say or do anything to remain relevant and in 1973 Riggs took aim at women’s tennis. Riggs believed even as a former pro, he could beat the women’s current number 1. He laid down the gauntlet for one woman, in particular, Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean King

King was the best female tennis player in the world. But beyond that, she had been an instrumental trailblazer for the sport of women’s tennis. Off the court, she had campaigned for the sport to be taken seriously and for equal prize money at major tournaments.

Until 1973, there had only been 3 years of professional women’s tennis, forged through the ability and personality of King. This made her the perfect target for Riggs to call out for a special match that would be dubbed ‘Battle of the Sexes’.

King initially declined the offer believing it to be childish. But after Riggs challenged and beat Margaret Court, Riggs threatened to derail everything she had achieved.

 The Match

The stage was set and over 30,000 fans packed the Astrodome to witness history in the making. An estimated 50 million people tuned into the TV broadcast making it the most watched tennis match to date.

Both players made a spectacle of the entrance, King carried in by topless men and Riggs, in turn, was escorted by ‘Bobby’s Bosom Buddies’. What had begun as a silly bet, had evolved into so much more. With women’s equality a hot-button issue in American society, this was a must-win game for King.

Riggs was the first to break a serve and took an early 3-2 lead in the first set. King has since reflected on her poor start to the match as the moment she realised she couldn’t lose. Driven by her own desires, King stepped up her game and came from behind to win the first set 6-4.

King had studied Riggs’ match with Margaret Court to analyse a weakness in his game and it was paying off. In a departure from her usual aggressive approach, she played a long series of softballs and lobs. She was making Riggs run the entire court, knowing he wouldn’t have the stamina to outlast her. The tactic paid off and King won two more straight sets 6-3, 6-3 and with it the match.

Riggs may have talked a big game but unfortunately for him, he couldn’t back it up on the court. The ageing pro was no match for a woman on top of her game. King had proved once and for all that women were at least as good as men and deserving of equality. The message from her victory radiated out of the arena and still stands today in all major sports that now encourage professional women’s teams.

Aftermath

Sadly some refused to accept the victory, claiming the match was rigged. Carrell himself questioned the misogyny of Riggs in a recent interview, claiming it was all an act for the cameras. Regardless of what Riggs believed, his views were popular amongst many and King delivered a serious blow to chauvinists. She continued to campaign for equality outside of the sport and remains one of the most influential women in the world today.

Aside from the showmanship surrounding the match, this was a landmark day for tennis and women everywhere. King had shown everyone that a woman can succeed in a man’s world. Billie Jean King truly was an incredible woman and even more importantly an incredible athlete.