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BILLIE JEAN KING VS. BOBBY RIGGS: 30 YEARS LATER

Sex and the Witty

For some, the epic King-Riggs tennis showdown elevated women's sports. For others, it was a comical and blustering show

September 21, 2003|Charles Bricker | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Bobby Riggs knew he was in trouble from the moment Billie Jean King made her grand entrance, 30 years ago Saturday, in the Battle of the Sexes.

Leaning back on a throne fixed to a red velvet litter, King waved regally to the 30,472 inside the Houston Astrodome and to the estimated 50 million who watched this outrageous and historic tennis match on television.

She was carried to the court by a half-dozen bare-chested, toga-clad football players from the University of Houston, and she looked as nerveless as Queen Kong.

There would be no repeat of Riggs' easy win over the extremely nervous Margaret Court, the No. 1 player whom the hustling Sugar Daddy of tennis had humiliated on Mother's Day.

He would lose this time by 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 -- his chops and slices easily parried away by the athletic King, who was, at age 29, still at the top of her game. And with the victory and the financial prize of $150,000, King struck perhaps the greatest blow in history for women athletes.

"I didn't feel it was a very big accomplishment, athletically," she said. "But, psychologically and emotionally, it was a big deal. I knew it might provide a springboard for girls and women in sports."

Thirty years later, her knees in periodic pain following a series of operations, Billie Jean King is still out fighting for women in sports, coaching the U.S. Fed Cup team and remembering, with unwavering accuracy, those amazing weeks that led up to the Battle of the Sexes and the aftermath as well.

"Bobby had been chasing me around for two, two and a half years. I couldn't believe that Court had lost and lost badly. She was annihilated," King said in a recent interview. "I told Margaret it would be a circus, that it was about social change and not tennis, that it was going to trigger people's emotions. But I don't think she quite comprehended this."

Certainly it was, for King, all about the advancement of women in sports. But to the greatly misunderstood Riggs, who made a great show of chauvinism, it was purely about money. Win, lose or draw, Riggs, 55 at the time, was going to get his $150,000 as well.

"I kept telling him, 'Dad, we've got to start practicing.' But he said part of the deal was that he would do the promoting, all the leg work," said his son, Larry Riggs, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla.

"Dad said that Billie Jean didn't have time to do the interviews, so he'd do them. And besides, he said, Margaret Court was a lot better player than Billie. There wasn't going to be any problem beating her."

Larry Riggs, who had been a very good college player, knew differently. Not long before the match, he informed Bobby, who died of prostate cancer in 1995, that he had bet $100 on King."

Bobby Riggs was hustling tennis bets long before the Battle of the Sexes. At the 1939 Wimbledon, he walked into one of London's numerous wagering emporiums and bet he would win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles. He won a reported $140,000.

But he outdid himself in 1973, appearing in countless TV spots and doing newspaper interviews and always wearing a T-shirt with a pig on it and turning the rhetoric up as loud as it could go. "I want Billie Jean King. I want the women's lib leader," Riggs would demand.

It was all bluster and show. There are those who believe Riggs threw the match after betting heavily on King, because the odds were so good. Danny Riggs discounts that theory.

"He never really mentally recovered from losing to her," said his son. "It was the biggest match of his life. People don't remember him at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. They remember the Billie Jean King match. When he was passing away, Billie called him and couldn't have been nicer.

"He kept telling her, 'You promised me a rematch.' And she kept telling him, 'Bobby, I'll give it to you. Just hold on.' "

King has always been a bit of an anomaly. "I guess I'm just very much a loner, except for one thing. I really can't stand to be alone for long," she told Frank Deford, who has written a book about her. "Sometimes, I ask myself, 'Billie Jean, where do you belong? Do you fit in anywhere?' Maybe all my life I've just been trying to change things so there would be someplace right for me."

The match was advertising as winner-take-all, $100,000. In fact, each got $150,000. Riggs led 2-1 in the first set, but it was never close after that. The next day, the banner headline in the Los Angeles Examiner read: "Pigs Are Dead, Long Live the King."

Billie Jean's tennis dress went to the Smithsonian Institute, a part of American history and the match went down as sports folklore.

Riggs vs. King came at a time when tennis was burgeoning, particularly in the United States. Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe were emerging and Chris Evert of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was 18 years old and the Wimbledon finalist that year.

But there was a great disparity in prize money between the genders, and there still is a gap, though it has closed greatly in the last 30 years. And for that, women's tennis can thank Billie Jean King.

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