Trailblazing female tennis star Billie Jean King beat former men’s champ, Bobby Riggs, in a highly publicized match, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes,” on this day in history, Sept. 20, 1973 — 50 years ago today.
The made-for-TV sports spectacle proved a watershed moment in the fight for women’s equality in athletics.
King won the tennis match in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) before more than 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and millions more around the country and the world on television.
“Not one day has passed that someone has not asked me about that match,” King told Fox News Digital in an emailed comment last year, on the 49th anniversary of her win.
“Fifty million people in the United States and an estimated 90 million people worldwide tuned in,” King’s website indicates about the match. It was “one of the most watched televised sporting events of all time” and “no tennis match before or since has been seen by so many.”
Ahead of the primetime broadcast, both athletes hammed it up for the cameras.
“King made a Cleopatra-style entrance on a gold litter carried by men dressed as ancient slaves,” writes History.com, “while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models.”
Celebrated sportscaster Howard Cosell called the match, lending an air of grandeur to the festivities.
King, age 29 at the time, was in the midst of a dominating run.
The California native won the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1972.
She defended her Wimbledon title just two months before the “Battle of the Sexes,” while winning eight other Grand Slam championships in her career.
Riggs, age 55 during the match, had been the world’s top-ranked tennis player in 1946 and 1947.
He’d made a grand entry into the international limelight, winning Wimbledon as a 21-year-old amateur in 1939.
Riggs, who died in 1995, was also an overt and self-proclaimed male chauvinist who had publicly belittled female athletes.
He gave King a giant candy lollipop before the match with “Sugar Daddy” written on it.
His coarse reputation made King’s victory taste much sweeter for her supporters around the world.
In addition to a lifetime of acclaim, she nabbed a $100,000 payday in the winner-take-all competition.
“This event was like none other before,” longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer said in the magazine’s July retrospective of the event.
“Nobody had ever held a tennis match in a stadium like this. It was a Hollywood production.”
Despite the overt showmanship, the matched served to legitimize the skill of female competitors.
It was played just a year after the passage of the Education Amendments of 1972, best known for its Title IX, which opened up athletic opportunities for females in college.
“It was about social change, much more than about tennis,” King has often said.
She saw it as a victory for women athletes everywhere.
She has said, as her own website notes, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
“It was about social change, much more than about tennis.”
King in 1971 earned more than $100,000 in prize money. She is believed to be the first female athlete to reach that milestone.
“However, significant pay disparities still existed between men and women athletes and King lobbied hard for change,” writes History.com.
“In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament to hand out the same amount of prize money to winners of both sexes.”
King to this day remains a trailblazer for many people all over the globe.
As she wrote in her autobiography, “All In,” published in 2021, she told her mother as a young child, “Mom, I’m going to do something great with my life — I just know it! You watch.”
That included being the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
In 1973 she founded the Women’s Tennis Association; in 2006 she became the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor (the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open); and in 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, among her other accomplishments.