Remembering The Battle of the Sexes, 40 Years Later

Remembering The Battle of the Sexes,   40 Years Later

It was 40 years ago that Billie Jean King glided into the Houston Astrodome on a gilded chariot, Cleopatra style. She was there to face off against Bobby Riggs, a former No. 1 tennis player who was convinced there was no way a female player, even one of the world's best, could defeat a man on the tennis court. In July, the International Tennis Hall of Fame had the privilege of welcoming Billie Jean to Newport for a special screening of a documentary about the historic match and to share her personal reflections. Click "read more" to watch a video of the event and hear Billie Jean's personal reflections.

The packed stadium held more than 30,000 eager fans and millions more tuned in from home to see the dramatic "Battle of the Sexes" unfold. Celebrities sat in the crowd, Riggs arrived in a rickshaw led by models, and King presented him with a tiny piglet at the net, symbolic of a male chauvinistic pig. The event was undoubtedly a spectacle- sports entertainment at its best. While the event fanfare eventually faded, the match left a lasting, positive mark on the sports community and society at large. King handily defeated Riggs in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), successfully earning respect and awareness for gender equality in the United States, and forging professional tennis into the worldwide spotlight. 

In July, the International Tennis Hall of Fame had the privilege of welcoming Billie Jean to Newport for a special screening of a documentary about the historic match and to share her personal reflections. Joining Billie Jean King for this momentous occasion were special guests and fellow Hall of Famers Rosie Casals, Bud Collins, Owen Davidson, Martina Hingis, Peachy Kellmeyer, and Russ Adams, all present to celebrate and honor the historic match that brought tennis into the international spotlight and gender equality to the forefront of social conversation. Hall of Fame Chairman Christopher Clouser moderated the event. Below, you can watch the video of the discussion with Billie Jean King, and a recap of the discussion follows. 


ITHF: Welcome back to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Billie Jean. It is very special for us to have you here.
BJK: I am very glad to be here tonight and happy that you all came. I have to thank Rosie (Casals) and Owen (Davidson), they were my partners in doubles and mixed doubles and now they are part of my family.

ITHF: What do you think about this documentary and the 40th anniversary of “The Battle of the Sexes?”
BJK: This documentary is very important and it tells the story about what happened from 1968 to 1973 …I loved this documentary, there is some footage and photography that I had never seen before, and actually part of it was almost thrown away. This project started a year ago, featuring the “Original Nine” as professional tennis players, when we signed the $1 dollar contract in 1970 in Houston. This year marks the 40th anniversary of two pivotal moments in my life’s work; firstly, the formation of the Women Tennis Association and secondly, my victory over Bobby Riggs. 

ITHF: How do you feel 40 years later?
BJK: When I was 12 years old and a member of the Los Angeles Tennis Club I started thinking about our sport. Everybody used to wear white clothes, white shoes, and even white balls for men. The question I asked myself was: “Where is everybody else?” And I started thinking beyond tennis and more about the world. Somehow, I knew tennis would be my platform, so probably to be honest with you I knew tennis would be stuck in my life. I grew up with a brother, I didn’t have a sister, and my father was so good to me as well as my mother, and I just thought that we should have equal opportunities and rights for both genders. My commitment to equal values and opportunity for all began at that point in life, and all I wanted was equality of genders.

ITHF: What were your thoughts when you accepted to play Bobby Riggs?
BJK: So often a woman does not get attention unless you are in the middle of the arena. That’s the reason the King and Riggs match was a big deal. We had learned to see the world with men’s eyes: both genders. It is interesting how the world is set up, I just want everyone to think about that, I want us to champion each other; I always say “champion each other” no matter what. The great thing about that match it is actually that brought everybody together even though they were partying, betting, and getting upset with each other.

ITHF: What was the plan if you lost, have you thought that through?
BJK: I thought a lot about losing, and that was probably a very driving force when I won the match, and besides I totally respected Bobby Riggs because I loved his family…We worked so hard to keep the women’s tour, to make it happen and he (Bobby Riggs) kept calling me to play, and you have to understand we were at the third year of women’s professional tennis in 1973, we were in a very tenuous position, we had no idea what was going to happen and the last thing for me was to play Bobby Riggs because I didn’t want to lose focus on the task we wanted to get done. You also have to remember that I wanted men and women to be together as an association, the reason we did it this way is because they rejected us. This was actually my plan B, not my plan A. I wanted us to have one tennis association; we could be so powerful on and off the court if the men and women had been together, because very few sports have high profile men and women, and tennis has been global for both genders and it is remarkable, a privilege and an opportunity at the same time.

ITHF: Rosie, how was this match for you? How did you feel?
Rosie Casals: It was really entertaining, but many of you don’t realize that I was doing the comments with Howard Cosell. So I was looking at from a totally different perspective and place. I was behind the camera, so it was a little bit tougher…to watch at that point of view because I had my problems with Howard Cosell. I was making the effort about tennis and I was talking, telling what was going on, what Billie Jean King was thinking, how the strategies were going and all that and he would interject all the time and say: “…Rosie, you are looking at it this way, but look, that Bobby Riggs is going to be a winner he just has to get going.” It was so difficult because he said all kinds of things. What people ultimately do not know and neither realize is that this match almost never happened because the other person that was supposed to be doing the commentary with me was Jack Kramer, and we have some history with Jack. One of the reasons the match went to Houston is because of Virginia Slims, and we could not get the equal prize money, and Jack Kramer was part of it, Billie can talk about this.

BJK: If he was going to be the commentator I wasn’t going to play the match and they didn’t believe me. So the night before Larry came to me and asked me if I knew what I was saying. And I repeated: “If Jack Kramer is going to commentate this match I am not going to play.” And he said: “Okay Billie, if you have told me this before is a done deal.” And then they replaced him with Gene Scott.

Rosie: Yes, Gene Scott came in and it wasn’t the greatest connection but we did it. I said a lot of things about the Sugar Daddy, but at the end, Bobby Riggs did a lot for women tennis.

ITHF: The publicity for this event was enormous.  How did you two interact with all of this? We saw you in a couple of commercials with him.
Billie: I wasn’t really going to do any commercials but Bobby was making a lot of money than I was and I wasn’t going to get anything from that match, it was a winner takes all. So, I went to Jerry Perennchio the former owner of Univision, and he was a great promoter at that time. I came to him and I said: “Bobby is making all this money; they were throwing money at Bobby, how about me? I am not getting any of it.” So after I went to Jerry I did some commercials with Bobby in case I lost, because I would get zero money. But I did not answer your question about if I lost, I did not know but I was scared to death. Because if I lost I was worried about the tour, I was worried a lot about Title Nine. I wanted to win that match very much, to get start changing the hearts and mind of the people to match the legislation. And with all of this I knew I had to win but Rosie can tell the story because I don’t remember, she came to the locker room 20 minutes before the start of the match…

Rosie: Yes, we were actually playing the Virginia Slims tournament that week, so everything was happening while we were playing that tournament. And I asked her: How are you feeling about the match? Because I know you are going to win, and she looked at me with those baby blue eyes and said: “I know, I am going to win this match in three sets.” And I said: “6 4, 6 3, 6 3.” I guessed the score correctly. I believed in her when she said she was going to win.

BJK: I don’t remember that and I also don’t remember what my brother told me 3 months ago, he said: “Sis you don’t remember when you called me the night before and I asked you if you were going to win. You told me: ‘Yo’, you can bet the house!” At that time my brother was a player for the San Francisco Giants, and after this talk he put a notice up on his locker and every one bet against me. During the match he was in his living room, eating chicken wings counting the money. I don’t have these memories, but I remember that I was trying to convince myself that I could win. It was a lot going on, women’s tour, women’s movement, I had too. I thought: Please God let me win!

ITHF: But Margaret didn’t win.

Prior to the Battle of the Sexes Margaret Court accepted Bobbyby Riggs’ first request for a male/female tennis showdown. She lost the match, on May 13, 1973, 2-6, 1-6.

BJK: I just couldn’t believe when she told me she was playing Bobby Riggs. I thought she would win, didn’t you Rosie?

Rosie: I think Margaret didn’t realize what kind of match it was, and she said yes for the money and she didn’t think about all the pressure, what it was really going to mean to women’s tennis. She didn’t look at that side of the repercussion at the whole picture. She didn’t want to be involved in that aspect and unfortunately she didn’t prepare for the match. We were coming back from Japan and it happened at the airport; we watched Margaret Court lose to Bobby Riggs. 

BJK: I am more nervous now. You just have to work through it and do the best you can. I was playing one ball at time and I do that on and off the court.

Fighting for gender equality didn’t just mean meeting Riggs on the tennis court.  Billie Jean King was one of the “Original Nine,” a group of female tennis players who formed the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1970 and what eventually became the basis for the later named WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Tour. The players rebelled against the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) due to the wide inequality in prize money paid to male and female tennis players. In 1973, before Wimbledon, women banded together in London and behind closed doors, formed the WTA. 

ITHF: Rosie, What did you do when you locked that door, with the two distinct women’s groups, to bring them together?

Rosie: Well, it wasn’t easy because we had a lot of international players, and their governing body was the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association), which was very strong and organized, so they were afraid. But we started talking, and at that point we could not play at tournaments that everybody else could so we understood certain things: that we should stick together, that to be professional and paid players it was the right thing to do. We had a little edge on convincing our women that they needed to stick together and have one voice, that it would be the only way we could compete with men, and earn prize money and earn a living.

Billie: I thought we weren’t competing with the men, I thought we would have more opportunities and we weren’t getting any. And it is interesting what Margaret said (referring to a scene in the documentary), she believed that men and women should be together for the tournaments, so do we, and we all did and we were together. I just like for people to be together. I have a hard time with separation.

ITHF: How are you and Margaret Court doing?

BJK: We do fine. We see each other here and there, at the Royal box, and we talk but we never talked about the match and I will never bring it up. If she wants to talk about it and bring it up I will talk to her. But I feel so bad for her. But as everybody in that room and every athlete in the world knows, we have had days like that and we have all been there.

 ITHF: Billie Jean King we can’t thank you enough for being here tonight. Thank you and we also want to thank Rosie Casals for talking to us.

BJK: Thank you for having me here, I’ve loved history since I was a child and I love this place. I wish you all the luck with the Capital Campaign. Thank you.