Why Tennis’s Battle of the Sexes Doesn’t Mean What People Think It Means
Women cannot compete successfully with men in professional tennis
It might be an exaggeration to claim that there have been too many dramatizations of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’s 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” to count. But there sure have been a lot over the years. Typically they depict young girls and women watching the denouement, faces lighting with inspiration. Hitherto unglimpsed vistas of possibility open before them.
Nothing wrong with that.
But what did the match really mean?
Bobby lost to Billie Jean because he became complacent. Four months earlier, in May of 1973, he defeated Margaret Court in mixed sets in what became known as “the Mother’s Day Massacre”. Court, who still holds the record for largest number of Grand Slam wins, had been ranked number one that year on the women’s tour.
Though also ranked number 1 in the world, for three separate years, Riggs by then was long past his heyday. In 1973 Riggs was 55, Court 31, and Billie Jean King 29.
King, when first challenged to play Riggs, dismissed the affair as meaningless gimmickry. It was only after he defeated Court that she realized she would have to play him if the women’s tour, then just starting out with sponsorship by Virginia Slims, was to have any credibility.
And so she did, and so it was.
It shouldn’t have mattered, either way. The match was pantomime writ large. Billie Jean got into the spirit of things by agreeing to ride in on a litter carried by four bare-chested men, while Riggs rode a litter drawn by young women. Riggs earned an extra $50,000 by wearing a Sugar Daddy windbreaker. After the match, Billie Jean accepted the gift of a baby pig, which she named Robert Larrimore Riggs, Bobby’s full name.
Had she lost, would it have mattered? Probably not. Sponsorship notwithstanding, women’s tennis would never have got off the ground without fans. And the fans were there. The…