On September 20, 1973 in the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King won one of the most famous tennis matches of all time.
At the time, the American was one of the best women’s players in the world. She even won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles at that summer’s Wimbledon!
But this particular match wasn’t about winning a trophy. It was about winning respect!
Her opponent was a male player named Bobby Riggs and the press called their match the “Battle of the Sexes”. By winning, King changed how people saw not just women’s tennis, but all women’s sports.
Riggs makes a challenge
The match had been set up by an arrogant Riggs. Between the 1930s and 50s, he had been a top tennis champion. He had won many famous tournaments, including Grand Slams like Wimbledon and the US Open.
But he did not respect women’s tennis or female athletes. In early 1973, he said that even though he was 55 and had retired from tennis, he could beat any woman in a tennis match.
To prove his point, he challenged Billie Jean King, who was then 29, to a match.
At first, King said no. She felt it was just a stunt for attention and not a serious challenge. She didn’t want to get involved. In her place, another top female tennis star, Australian Margaret Court, played Riggs on May 13, 1973 in Ramona, California.
In front of 5,000 fans, Riggs won the match easily. Now he bragged even more loudly to the press about how much better male players were than women.
King steps up
King felt she had something to prove. She accepted Riggs’ challenge and a match was set. And because of the story of his win over Margaret Court, millions of people were interested!
On matchday, a packed Astrodome was crammed with over 30,000 people. This is still the largest live audience to ever watch a tennis match in the United States. And a stunning 50 million more people were watching on TV.
Early in the match, Riggs was winning. But King had studied how Riggs played and she had a game plan. She quickly began to turn the tables on Riggs, using her speed and agility to win point after point. Riggs, now nervous that he might actually lose, starting taking the match very seriously. But once King had taken the lead, she never really looked back.
Two hours later, the match was over: She was the winner!
A superstar is born
After the match, Riggs admitted to King that he had underestimated her.
King told reporters that she felt that she had to win. “I thought it would set [women] back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she said.
Instead, her victory turned her into a national superstar and an icon for women around the world. She would continue to play for many more years and retired in 1983 with an amazing 39 Grand Slam titles.
But even after her tennis career ended, she continued working as an activist for women’s rights. Her efforts helped female tennis players today earn equal pay, making the same amount of money as men do.
Still standing tall
Now 79, King is seen as one of the greatest athletes ever.
In fact, in 2006 the site of the US Open was named after her—the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But that doesn't mean that she is resting on her accomplishments. She is still working hard to fight for the rights of female athletes.
She is one of the leaders behind the brand new women's pro hockey league, the PWHL. On Monday, September 18, she was in Toronto to help oversee that league's first-ever draft. (A draft is when new players are selected by teams.)
Almost fifty years to the day after her Battle of the Sexes triumph, Billie Jean King is still pushing for a better world for women's sports. Remarkable!