'The Battle of the Sexes'

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Date: Sept. 21, 1998
From: Newsweek(Vol. 132, Issue 12)
Publisher: Newsweek LLC
Document Type: Interview
Length: 909 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The well-publicized 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became a media spectacle, and may have ushered in a new era for women's sports everywhere. King soundly defeated Riggs, and she discusses her memories of the event and its implications.

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Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs was a national spectacle in 1973. Here, the winner looks back.

Billie jean king was carried into the Astrodome on a feathered Egyptian litter borne by bare-chested hunks. Bobby Riggs entered on a Chinese rickshaw hauled by the aptly named (and scantily clothed) "Bobby's Bosom Buddies." But somehow a 1973 tennis match staged as farce--the "Battle of the Sexes"--evolved into something that shook the foundations of American sports. When the 29-year-old King, a betting underdog, thrashed the 55-year-old Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, before 30,000 in Houston and a huge national TV audience, it signaled not only women's athletic prowess, but, more important, their marketability. "Today's young women athletes don't have a clue they're where they are because of the courage of Billie Jean King," says Willye White, a five-time Olympian who along with King and others founded the Women's Sports Foundation after the match. On Sunday King will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her historic victory. She spoke with Newsweek's Mark Starr about the match and its aftermath:

On why she accepted Riggs's challenge

Bobby kept trying to get me to play for months, and I kept saying, "No." But then he beat Margaret Court, who was ranked No. 1, and I just had to play. I had no choice. I didn't feel women were accepted as athletes yet. Title IX [the federal ban on gender discrimination in education programs, including sports, receiving federal money] had just passed, and I could see people [looking] for an excuse to backtrack. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation we had just gotten in place.

On the public reaction to the match

I could tell right from the beginning that this whole idea just set people off. It triggered a lot of craziness, a lot of emotions. Then with network TV and prime time and Howard Cosell, who back then was bigger than life, I knew it was going to be huge.

On her thoughts right before the match

Well, as I sat in the locker room waiting to vomit, I kept thinking this was not about a tennis match, this was about social change. I had to win. It was life or death.

On the circus atmosphere

The promoter said to me, "Well, Billie, you're a feminist so you probably don't want to do this show stuff." I told him, "Being a feminist doesn't mean we don't have fun." And I got up on the litter.

On the victory

I was thrilled--mostly that it was over. I didn't feel it was a very big accomplishment athletically. But psychologically and emotionally it was a big deal. I knew it might provide a springboard for girls and women in athletics. But at the time I mostly felt relief. Some nights I still wake up in bed and start getting twinges thinking, "Oooh, I have to play that match." Then I remember and I'll take a deep breath and say, "It's OK. Thank you, God."

On her victory celebration

First I had to get out of there. We had no security and I was totally trampled. George Foreman came down from the stands and kept yelling, "Get away from her." George and I were bonded for life due to that. Plus he had bet on me to win with Jim Brown. When I got back to the hotel, I had about 30 ice-cream sundaes delivered to my room. That was my reward.

On the new generation of women athletes

They sure don't know much about history. I talked to a girls' high-school tennis team, where not one player or coach had heard of Title IX. That's truly scary. Even pro tennis players don't have much of an idea of what happened way back then. We kind of lost everything during the Graf generation. Steffi got real insulated. She never stayed in the locker room, never talked to the others. So we're starting all over with the next generation. Hingis is one, though, who knows the most. When the girls play trivia, she comes in first all the time.

On the legacy of the Riggs match

Every day somebody comes up to talk about how that match affected them. The other day this guy told me his wife was about to give birth right before the match, and the obstetrician said, "If King wins, I'll give you free delivery." They had the baby that night. And appropriately enough, it was a daughter. But that match wasn't just about women. It was about equal opportunity. A lot of young men who watched that match are today's decision makers. And they think it's normal for their daughters to have equal opportunities with boys. I think that match helped bring that about.

On how she'll be remembered

Hey, I'm not finished yet. I've got a lot going on. [King coaches the U.S. Federation Cup team, plays on the Virginia Slims Legends Tour, owns a World Team Tennis franchise and has just started the Billie Jean King Foundation to promote equal opportunity outside sports.] Everything I do is about equal opportunity. Race, gender, sexual orientation. Let's get over it. Let's celebrate our differences.^

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