By Phil Richardson
Exactly 44 years ago—September 20, 1973, nearly 40,000 people squeezed into The Houston Astrodome or joined 90-million others in front of their TVs, to watch what was touted by sports writers to be “The Battle of the Sexes.”
THE SETUP: The instigator, Bobby Riggs, a 55-year old (said at the time by tennis buffs to be “aging”) former Wimbledon-winning, champion tennis pro, set it up by bragging emphatically to some sports reporter “I could beat any current top-rated woman tennis player.” He capped off the interview by adding, “The best way to handle a woman is to keep her pregnant and in the kitchen.”
He went on to say that he had made $100,000 betting on himself, and would guarantee any top woman tennis player $10,000, just so he could prove his prowess—if they would dare contest him on a tennis court. He specifically challenged the up and coming Billie Jean King, a talented 29-year old who had by that time won 10 major singles tennis titles.
King didn’t bite at first, but Margaret Court, the top-seeded woman tennis player at that time did, and on May 13, 1973, Riggs beat her handily in an exhibition match with unorthodox serves, freaky lobs and drop shots while close to the net—all judged fair.
Bobby Riggs couldn’t spell the word “f-a-i-r,” nor did he know the meaning of “chauvinist,” although by word and action, he personified it. Riggs was a natural born promoter of the highest order, and the immediate media response further motivated him.
He immediately raised the ante for King: A $100,000 winner-take all purse. He prompted the media to headline their coverage “The Battle Of The Sexes.”
“I went far beyond what she deserves,” he said, “That being 20-percent of the gate, because women players are only 20-percent as good as men players.” He added his usual chauvinistic rant, “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.”
Billie Jean signed for the match, and faced off against Riggs in the sold-out Astrodome, 44 years ago. She wore Riggs down in two sets with relentless, exacting, dominating play. “If I had lost,” she said, “I knew it would have set we women players back 50 years.”
She got her $100,000, and a string of products to endorse from Adidas, Wilson, and Colgate. She retired in 1983, a muti-millionaire, having won more titles in tennis—U.S. Open, Grand Slam and Wimbledon titles than this space can accommodate. She recently stated, “At my funeral, the one thing most people will remember about me is my match with Bobby Riggs.”
Much later, she and Riggs became close friends and she was one of the last few with whom he spoke before dying of cancer in October, 1995. He was 77. She will be 74 on November 22, 2017.
(Dear Reader: If you watched CBS “Sunday Morning” broadcast on Sunday 9/17/2017, I wish you to know that I wrote the preceding in six hours, with the aid of Google, all on Saturday, 9/16, and the great bio of Billie Jean King that aired on “Sunday Morning” the day after I put this piece to bed, was a big surprise and happy co-incidence.) I look forward to seeing this all play out in a new film.
Phil Richardson, Observer of the human condition and storyteller, is a retired broadcast executive residing in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three books – “Water Dream,” “The Prosperity Coal Company” and “Miguel: Narcotraficante.” All are available at Amazon.com.
“He goes doddering on into his old age, making a public nuisance of himself.” – Joseph L. Menchen
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