September 20, 1973: Two tennis greats meet in the Houston Astrodome in Texas. Robert Larimore Riggs was born in 1918 and took up the game when he was eleven. He became a tennis star in the 1930s and 40s and became ranked World No. 1 as an amateur in 1941. That same year he played his first professional game on December 26. He went on to be the World No. 1 professional player in 1946 and again in 1947. He was a hustler and a gambler. He parlayed a $500 stake into $105,000 in 1939 by betting on himself to win all his games at Wimbledon (betting was legal in England). That would be over $1.5 million in 2009 USD.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born in 1943. She began playing tennis on the public courts of her home town. She made her Grand Slam debut in 1959 at the age of fifteen. She went on to win 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. Her brother was a professional baseball player, as well. She married Lawrence King in 1965. By 1968, she began an affair with Marilyn Barnett. Barnett filed a palimony suit, outing Ms King. Great financial hardship followed. Billie Jean and Larry divorced in 1987.
Bobby Riggs had already beaten Margaret Court, another former World No. 1 tennis player. Riggs, now 55, was still the huckster looking for a win – and a way to prove the superiority of males. In May, Court was opposite the net from Riggs. She was not used to his lobs and drop shots. He proved the inferiority of even top-ranked women tennis players against an old guy. He won: 6-2 and 6-1. He made the covers of magazines and began to challenge all female tennis players. King, as much for the financial gain as well as the great opportunity, accepted the challenge. “The Battle of the Sexes” was on.
King was carried in Cleopatra-style and deposited on her side of the net. Riggs was transported by rickshaw – pulled by seductive models. King learned from Court’s experience. She played the baseline and parried Riggs’s lobs and soft shots. She ran him all over the court and won: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Some critics claimed it was the 26 years age difference and thus a battle of the ages rather than the sexes. Court was a year older than King and the 25 year spread in ages was apparently not a problem. The rules used for the Battle of the Sexes were not altered from the norm in any way. King simply was the better player.
“I don’t think Billie Jean played all that well. She hit a lot of short balls which Bobby could have taken advantage of had he been in shape. I would never take anything away from Billie Jean – because she was smart enough to prepare herself properly – but it might have been different if Riggs hadn’t kept running around.” – Jack Kramer
“I’ll put Billie Jean King and all the other Women’s Libbers back where they belong – in the kitchen and the bedroom.” – Bobby Riggs
“A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning.” – Billie Jean King
“I will tell you King’s First Law of Recognition: You never get it when you want it, and then when it comes, you get too much.” – Billie Jean King
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Billie Jean King’s parents were a firefighter and homemaker and she was raised in a conservative Methodist home. She stated she was in the closet by choice as her parents were homophobic. However, when her lover outed her, there was nothing left to do but come clean. She lost all her endorsements within 24 hours of the palimony suit filed by her former secretary and lover, Marilyn Barnett. She says she had not realized she was gay prior to marrying or she would not have made that choice. She was not only constrained by her parents disfavor but also the atmosphere at the time. Her career did, in fact, come to an abrupt end when she was forced to admit her sexuality. She wasn’t openly accepted by her parents and herself until she reached the age of 51. She was finally able to come to terms with her past and create her own future.
Also on this day: Cannes Film Festival – In 1946, the first Cannes Film Festival is held.
QE2 – In 1967, the British cruise ship was launched.
Across the Deep Blue Sea – In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his journey around the world.