I was too young to remember this, but I am well aware of the significance of this monumental event from Sept. 20th, 1973. Yes, it was a while ago. I saw a tweet recently about this, someone thanking Billie Jean King for her contribution to the game of tennis, women’s rights, and the world. Yes…it was that monumental.
I won’t be able to do this story justice, but I will try to paint the picture of what this entailed as best I can. I am not sure just how accurate the recent movie was, but here is the IMBD rundown of it. Emma Stone and Steve Carell played the roles of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs to some critical acclaim. So here goes…
Bobby Riggs, a brash and outspoken former #1 ranked Men’s Professional Tennis player, who was long since retired, somehow ends up involved in a Battle of the Sexes tennis match with Margaret Court, the number one Women’s Professional Tennis Player in the world at that time. In what came to be known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre“, Bobby Riggs destroyed Court in straight sets with lopsided scores. This match was not nearly as publicized and viewed as the next one would be. Whether it was a publicity stunt, a way to regain some relevance in tennis, whatever, only Riggs would know that. He challenged Billie Jean King, another of the Top women Pro’s at that time and outspoken Women’s Rights Advocate, to a $100,000 winner take all match. After baiting King with a media storm of sexist quotes and insults, she accepted the match. This was well received by the public, and quickly grew into a televised event spectacle played in the Houston Astrodome.
Now, to give a little context that would be hard to understand even by today’s standards, this is a time in our country’s history where women were truly fighting for recognition as equals. Yes, this still goes on today, but back then much of society thought women were the submissive partner of the man, and that was the extent of her role. She was not expected to have a job, and if she did it was not to interfere with her role as housewife. It’s entirely possible that your grandparents still mirror this behavior, as mine did until they died. It’s how they grew up, and those social stigmas are hard to break thru.
Enter Billie Jean King…
As a top tennis professional, King did her best to use her platform to bring attention to the disparity of Women’s Rights in sports and in general. She organized the first Women’s union of tennis players, and together they would strive to make changes and gain equality in the sports world. In a united stance, the women tennis players threatened to boycott the US Open Tennis Championships, and to the surprise of many, the US Open caved and became the first professional tennis event to pay equal prize money for men and women. It was a monumental step forward in the sports world, and opened the eyes of many outside the tennis world to start viewing things differently.
As the actual event of the Battle of the Sexes drew near, Billie Jean King was training and playing on the tennis tour, collecting one of several Wimbledon wins in her career, while Riggs was on the ultimate chauvinist media tour. He lived lavishly, playing up his role of the Sugar Daddy lifestyle he was perpetuating. Riggs spent months smoking, drinking and gambling his way towards what would be the most watched tennis match in the history of the sport. The stage was set to prove his point: that women did not belong on the same court as men, and equal pay, well that was just a joke.
A few days in advance of the event, both Riggs and King were doing media events to promote this Battle of the Sexes match. King was steadfast and resolved, rarely getting ruffled by some of the blatantly sexist and insulting things Riggs was throwing around as part of this spectacle. The public interest grew, and so did the weight of the outcome for King. She had found herself in a situation with LITERALLY the hopes of and dreams of every little girl and every woman on the planet sitting squarely on her shoulders. Think about that… has anyone in sports EVER had that much riding on one single performance?
The day of the match arrived, and not to be outdone by Rigg’s outlandish approach and behavior, King was carried onto the court sitting on a pedestal carried by scantily clad buff men to offset Riggs doing the same in the male chauvinist version. As they took the court to do their final warm up and preparation, I can only imagine what was going through her mind. Riggs looked calm, presumably assumed he would win and that King would crumble under the pressure. King, however, thought she had a shot if she could just make Riggs run and play longer points than he wanted. She looked shaky in the warm ups, and as the match began, she struggled to put serves into play.
In a show of lack of respect, Riggs didn’t even take off his warm up jacket until three games in. By this time, King had played through some of her nerves and began to settle in. She slowly began to execute her plan, making Riggs was working harder than he wanted. King became like a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing the life out of Riggs as she tightened her grip on the first set. She broke serve late in the first set, and held on to win 6-4. The look on Riggs’ face between sets let the world know he had underestimated his opponent on that day. She cruised through the next sets, winning 6-3, 6-3. She had done it! She had run the race with the weight of the world on her back.
FIFTY MILLION PEOPLE WORLDWIDE watched this match. It was a historic event not just in tennis, not just in sports, but in the world in general. The tide had shifted; and while this one match didn’t change the world overnight, it was the snowball that got pushed over the edge of the hill and started the slow and building roll down the hill, never to lose it momentum again. In some ways, the world was never the same after this match. If she had lost this match, there may be no Title IX Sports scholarship regulations, no women’s professional sports of any significance, and she would had set back the women’s rights movement back two decades.
Billie Jean King was without a doubt one of the best tennis players of all time, but her impact on the world can’t get enough accolades and credit. She stood up at a time when few if anyone else would. She led the charge, and stuck to her convictions, damn the consequences. If you are looking for an amazing example of the human resolve, this is someone you should learn more about. Her book Pressure is a Privilege is a great read and puts into context her side of the story. I highly recommend you read and learn more about this amazing person, and her contribution to the world. Hopefully it inspires you to go out and make your mark on the world as well. And in my opinion, this is, hands down, the greatest pressure performance in sports history. No one has ever had the monumental amount of pressure to play under as Billie Jean King did that day, and she performed when it mattered most. An amazing testament to mental toughness and fortitude.
Check it out…you won’t be disappointed in all you learn from this.