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Anniversary Tribute for Battle of Sexes

Tennis: Honored as a defining moment in women's sports, the King-Riggs match stirs celebration 25 years later.

November 23, 1998|DONNA TOMMELLEO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARTFORD, Conn. — Billie Jean King won 71 singles titles and was a champion at Wimbledon 20 times during her run as a member of tennis' elite. But it was a straight-set exhibition-match victory that has defined her legacy and served as a catalyst for women's sports.

Luminaries and legends from tennis, the Olympics and politics sent a collective "Thank You" this past weekend to King in a tribute marking the 25th anniversary of her win over Bobby Riggs in the much-ballyhooed Battle of the Sexes.

King, then 29, whipped the brash, hustling 55-year-old Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in front of 30,472 in the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973. The match still holds the record for the largest crowd to attend a one-night tennis match.

What those spectators and a large television audience witnessed was the genesis of social change in women's sports and gender equality. It was a time when sport belonged to men and Title IX was in its infancy.

"Since that match, there has never been a day when someone doesn't tell me where they were or what they were doing that night," King said.

Martina Navratilova, the owner of a 168 singles titles, was a month shy of her 17th birthday when King took on Riggs.

"It made women and girls think they could do more. They always knew it. This just proved it to them," said Navratilova, one of several tennis stars attending the tribute that was part of the ATP World Doubles championship.

Former President George Bush sent along a videotaped congratulations and a confession.

"All of us old chauvinists thought Bobby was taking a dive, but after the match I didn't think so," Bush said. "She beat the heck out of him."

One by one, former tennis greats including Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Rosie Casals, recalled what King meant to them and their sport, liberally sprinkling their speeches with the words words "hero" and "idol."

The tribute was held on Saturday, the eve of King's 55th birthday. Friend and sportswriter Frank Deford led the crowd of 6,100 in a rendition of "Happy Birthday." He too thanked his friend and noted the match did not benefit just women, but served notice to boys and men, who now have daughters, that times were changing.

"It was for all of us--fathers fighting for their daughters to have equal rights in sports," Deford said.

Evert, who later took part in exhibition matches with Navratilova and others, also had to eat a little crow.

Then an 18-year-old phenom on the tennis circuit, Evert predicted victory for Riggs.

"I was a dumb teenager, and I apologize," said Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slam titles.

Amid the accolades heaped upon her, King said she had but one regret of the night.

"I wish Bobby could be here," she said of Riggs, who died of cancer in 1995. The two had remained good friends since the match. As time went by, Riggs came to understand the magnitude of what they accomplished in Houston a quarter-century ago, King said.

She recalled their final conversation two days before Riggs' death.

"He said 'We really did make a difference.' "

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