Culture

Battle of the Sexes: A Guide to the Legendary Tennis Match Between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Battle of the Sexes
Bobby Riggs flexes his biceps in an attempt to intimidate Billie Jean King. The two played against each other September 20, 1973. King won the match in straight sets. Bettman/Getty

Battle of the Sexes, a film about the famed 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, premieres in theaters Friday. It stars Emma Stone as King, whose victory in the match legitimized women's tennis in the eyes of millions, and Steve Carell as the braggadocio Riggs, a gregarious self-promoter who relished being back in the spotlight at the age of 55. For those who weren't alive when the match took place, nearly 50 years ago, it's hard to understand the magnitude of the event and just how significant King's victory was for women's equality, both inside and outside the sports world.

Related: How A.I. May Be Tennis's Ace for Serving Grand Slam Fans

Here's a rundown of the basics.

Bobby Riggs?

Bobby Riggs was an American tennis player who was most successful in the 1940s, when he won four majors, including three U.S. Opens. He won Wimbledon in 1939, the same year he reached number one in the world rankings. By the end of his career, he had won six majors and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.

In 1973, Riggs claimed that even though he was retired and well into his fifties, he could beat the top players in women's tennis. This didn't go over well with the women's tennis community.

Billie Jean King?

King was one of the best female tennis players for much of the '60s and '70s. She was ranked number one in the world in 1966 and won 12 career Grand Slam singles titles, including six Wimbledons. In 1972, a year before she would play Riggs, she was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, becoming both the first tennis player and the first female to garner the honor. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.

Just as important as King's success on the court was what she did to advance the women's game. In 1970, she and eight other female players—dubbed the Original 9—formed the Virginia Slims Circuit as part of a protest against pay inequality between male and female players. The tour was not recognized by the United State Lawn Tennis Association, but it would ultimately gain enough traction to lead to the formation of the Women's Tennis Association in June 1973.

It wasn't the first Battle of the Sexes

Billie Jean King wasn't the first player Riggs squared off against following his comments demeaning the women's game. In May 1973, four months before he would play King, the 55-year-old took on 30-year-old Australian Margaret Court, who had won all four majors—the Grand Slam—in 1970, and at the time of the match with Riggs was the leading money-winner on the women's tour. Riggs defeated Court 6-2, 6-1 in a match that didn't even last an hour. It was dubbed the "Mother's Day Massacre."

Riggs vs. King was a spectacle

After defeating Court, Riggs continued to talk trash, and a match against 29-year-old Billie Jean King was arranged. It would be broadcast live on ABC from the Astrodome in Houston. When the day came, both made grand entrances to the court, both of which played off their respective roles as male chauvinist and empowered woman. Riggs was rolled in on a rickshaw pulled by barely dressed women, while King entered on a feather-adorned raft carried by shirtless men. Gifts were exchanged as well, with King presenting Riggs a box containing a pig, and Riggs giving King an oversized Sugar Daddy. It was essentially a WWE event for the country-club crowd.

King refused to play unless a certain commentator was removed

When King and eight other female tennis players formed the Original 9 to protest pay inequality, they took dead aim at the Pacific Southwest Championship in Los Angeles, which paid the male champion eight times more than the female champion. When they asked Jack Kramer, the tournament chairman, to reduce the pay gap, he refused.

ABC initially tapped Kramer to be a commentator for King's match against Riggs, but King wasn't having it. She told the network that if Kramer was calling the match, she would not be playing in it.

King defeated Riggs in straight sets

Despite getting off to a slow start, King wore Riggs down to take the $100,000 guaranteed to the winner. She won in straight sets, defeating the 55-year-old 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

The match was an international sensation

With over 30,000 people traveling to the Astrodome to watch the match in person, the Battle of the Sexes is still the most well-attended tennis event in American history. The TV audience was huge as well, with 90 million people tuning into ABC's broadcast, only 50 million of whom were in the United States.

A lot of people believe Riggs lost on purpose

Riggs had long been a notorious gambler, and many believe he threw the match in an effort to relieve some debts. Because he was such an overwhelming favorite to defeat King, he could bet money against himself, lose on purpose and cash in. This theory was supported by all of the uncharacteristic unforced errors Riggs made throughout the match.

In 2013, ESPN ran a report alleging the match was in fact rigged, but the truth is still widely disputed. Regardless of whether Riggs threw the match, King did win, and the impact her victory had on women's tennis—and on a brief portion of the careers of Emma Stone and Steve Carell—was immeasurable. Now we just need Serena Williams to wipe the court with John McEnroe.

Editor's Pick
donald, trump, fundraiser, elliott, broidy, raid,

Feds Raided Trump Megadonor's Office

Elliott Broidy, an ally of President Donald Trump who was previously the national deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, was part of an investigation into whether he tried to sell access to the president.