Prepare for "Battle"
"If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the number-one pig," said Bobby Riggs before facing off with Wimbledon champ Billie Jean King in 1973. Click through for the real-life story of the match that transformed women's tennis and inspired the new movie "Battle of the Sexes."
Riggs Issued the Challenge
Bobby Riggs set the stage for the Battle of the Sexes when he ruined Mother's Day 1973 for women everywhere by thrashing No. 1-ranked Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 in a nationally televised exhibition match. The 55-year-old tennis hustler then turned his sights to Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King, 29. "I want the women's libber leader!" said Riggs. "I'll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates."
For King, It Was a Matter of Pride
Billie Jean King was the first female tennis pro to earn more than $100,000 a year. But she didn't sign up for the Battle of the Sexes just for the $100,000 winner-take-all prize. "Pride matters a lot more than money," King said.
Riggs Was the Real Deal
Riggs (left, with Don Budge in 1947) wasn't just a hustler, he was a legitimate champion. He won three Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1939, and was the world's top-ranked player in 1946 and '47. "I'm one of the greatest players who ever lived," he said before the Battle of the Sexes. "I'm 1-2-3-4-5, in there, greatest ever."
King Was a Game-Changer
Just three years earlier, in 1970, King co-founded the Virginia Slims Circuit, a tennis tour that initially featured nine of the top female pros. The circuit was organized to protest the huge disparity in prize money on the pro tour, where men typically earned four times more than women.
Riggs Loved to Gamble
In his 1949 autobiography, Riggs claimed that he bet on himself to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon in 1939 (shown here). Riggs said he parlayed his initial $500 wager into $105,000, the equivalent of more than $1.5 million today.
It Was About More Than Just Tennis
King admits feeling enormous pressure to win the Battle of the Sexes. "I knew it was about social change," she said at TEDWomen 2015 in Monterey, California. "I was really nervous when we announced it. It felt like the whole world was on my shoulders, and if I lose, it's going to put women back 50 years at least."
Riggs Had a Novel Health Regimen
A self-professed health nut, Riggs reportedly took 450 vitamins a day and feasted on avocados. "They give you a sharper mind," he claimed. He also exhibited a taste for something else that's green: bottle after bottle of Heineken beer.
Meet "the Sweetest Guy Around"
Riggs relished his role as tennis' reigning male chauvinist pig, but he insisted it was all an act. "I know a lot of people think I'm a rotten derelict and hate me for looking for women to pick on," Riggs told Sports Illustrated in 1973. "But I've always been the sweetest guy around. What I really am is just an old broken-down tennis bum trying to hang around a little longer and have some fun."
The Event Set a New Record
The Battle of the Sexes attracted 30,472 fans to the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. It was—and remains—the largest crowd to ever watch a tennis match in the U.S. A tuxedo-clad Howard Cosell hosted ABC's prime-time coverage of the historic showdown, and an estimated 50 million Americans watched the live broadcast. The worldwide audience exceeded 90 million.
Both Players Made a Grand Entrance
King was carried out like Cleopatra on a feather-shrouded palanquin borne by four toga-clad men from the track team of nearby Rice University. Riggs, seated in a rickshaw, was escorted by scantily dressed women who called themselves "Bobby's bosom buddies."
They Came Bearing Gifts
Ever the male chauvinist gentleman, Riggs presented King with a housewarming gift on the court: a six-foot-long Sugar Daddy—"the largest sucker I could find for the biggest sucker I know," he chided. King returned the favor by giving Riggs a baby pig.
Bettors Favored Riggs
Las Vegas odds makers thought the Battle of the Sexes was pretty much a mismatch. Riggs was a solid 2.5–1 favorite.
It Wasn't Much of a Battle
King whipped Riggs in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. "She was too good, too fast," Riggs admitted in a momentary display of grace. "She returned all my passing shots and made great plays off them."
They Entered Pop Culture
Riggs and King soon rekindled their rivalry on "The Odd Couple." In a November 1973 episode entitled "The Pig Who Came to Dinner," Riggs hustles Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) out of everything he owns, including the apartment he shares with Felix Unger (Tony Randall). Felix saves the day by arranging a winner-take-all ping-pong game, then outsmarts Riggs by introducing a surprise opponent: King.
Elton Sang Her Praises
The No. 1 female tennis player in the world soon inspired a No. 1 song. Billie Jean King's pal Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote "Philadelphia Freedom" in honor of King's team in the fledgling World Team Tennis league in 1974. The single, dedicated to "B.J.K. and the soulful sounds of Philadelphia," topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in April 1975.
She Stayed on Top
King remained at the top of her game after trouncing Riggs. She ended 1973 as the year's No. 1-ranked woman, a feat she would repeat in 1974 after winning the U.S. Open for the third time in four years. King won Wimbledon for the fourth time in 1975, the last of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles. She retired in 1983 and was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
Some Say Riggs Threw the Match
Is it possible he lost the Battle of the Sexes on purpose? ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported in 2013 that Riggs—a 2.5 to 1 favorite—threw the match to erase a $100,000 gambling debt to the mob. But the executor of his estate insists that's not true. "It was a real match, and he got beat," says Lornie Kuhle, a tennis pro and longtime friend. "Bobby didn't purposely throw the match. It's demeaning to the match and it's all complete bull—."
Women Came to Appreciate Riggs
When he died of prostate cancer at 77 in 1995, Riggs was credited with sparking unprecedented interest in women's tennis in the '70s. "For a male chauvinist, he did a lot of good for us," said former pro and broadcaster Rosie Casals." We'll always remember him in the best possible way."
She Called Riggs the Night Before He Died
King says she wanted to visit Riggs when he was sick, but he didn't want her to see him in such ill health. She told HBO that she called Riggs the night before he died. King's final words to her one-time nemesis: "I love you."
And Now the Movie ...
It took 44 years, but the historic tennis match is finally getting the Hollywood treatment. Click here to watch the trailer for "Battle of the Sexes," starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.
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