September 20th this year marks the 40th anniversary of a match that was to transform perceptions of and attitudes towards the women’s game. The 1973 match took place between Bobby Riggs, a retired male player who had seen better times in the late 1930s and 1940s and Billie-Jean King, one of the top woman players in the game at the time.
Some months before their encounter, Bobby Riggs had challenged Margaret Court to a match which Riggs won by 6-2; 6-1 against an out of sorts and unprepared Court. Wishing to drive home further his views about male sporting superiority, Riggs extended a further challenge to King. After a number of false starts, the match finally took place in the Houston Astrodome on 20 September, 1973. Women’s tennis and perceptions of it were never to be the same again.
Because of his latter reputation as a gambler and hustler, somehow the impression gained currency that Riggs was simply a superannuated slouch with a big mouth and a big ego. Although well past his prime in 1973, Riggs was one of the best players of his time and had retained a fierce will to win. He had once been World No.1, won the Wimbledon singles title in 1939 and also had two US National Championships under his belt. He rubbed shoulders with the very best of his era: Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Ted Schroeder et al. He was also one of the best seniors players at the time of his match against King. All the experience from these achievements he brought to his encounter with King.
Many wrote his chances off against a player in her prime like King, but, as mentioned, Riggs had already beaten Court and the outcome was far from certain.
As well as the sporting aspect to the encounter, inevitably a ‘bandwagon effect’ developed with strong political overtones. The issue of women’s equality in the game did inject an intensely ‘political’ aspect to the contest, with pressures building for a long time for more equal treatment. The Riggs/King match fed perfectly into that intense debate.
The staging of the match in Houston owed more to Hollywood than to the traditions of tennis. All kinds of razzmatazz surrounded the build-up and the playing of the match.
One of the mistakes that Court had made which King avoided on that occasion was lack of preparation. Court did not take the encounter too seriously, but King was deeply conscious of the long-term significance for the future of the women’s game and for women generally. For her, it was vitally important to win. In the run-up to the match, King worked hard on her fitness which she intended to deploy against an older and less than fit Riggs. In line with Riggs’ belief that women could never play at the same level as men, he suggested a best-of-five encounter – a challenge that King readily accepted. The match took place in front of an audience of over 30,000 in the Astrodome and a worldwide television audience of over around 100 million. This was pure box office.
King knew perfectly how to deal with Riggs, abandoning her usual aggressive game to play a defensive strategy that beat Riggs at his own game. In the end, King won the match 6-4; 6-3; 6-3. Riggs’ reaction to the loss was one of devastation, unable to fathom how he could have lost to a woman. King’s reaction was more about what her victory had done for the women’s game rather than for her own kudos.
Rumours spread at the time that Riggs ‘threw’ the match in an effort to make a gambling killing on the event, but many equally discounted the possibility, arguing that Riggs’ pride would never have allowed him to throw a match. In recent months, allegations have surfaced again from an eye-witness who claimed that Riggs agreed to throw the match to pay off a $100,000 mafia gambling debt. King and those close to Riggs cast doubt on such allegations, so the speculation will trundle on.
The reaction among women in the game and those with a more progressive, liberal outlook was one of huge enthusiasm. The sight of seeing Bobby Riggs being beaten was equalled by the huge boost in esteem for the women’s game from this deeply symbolic victory. King herself had already been deeply involved in developing the women’s game through the establishment of the WTA and the Virginia Slims tour and rightly saw her victory as a key watershed in enhancing the status of women’s tennis. King was quoted at the time as saying that ‘it would set us back 50 years if I did not win the match.’ Coming at the time of the growing women’s liberation movement, the victory also had a wider societal and political significance.
There have been subsequent encounters between high profile male and female players. For example, a match took place between Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors in 1992 which Connors won 7-5, 6-2. Both players were beyond their prime and the match failed to attract the kind of attention of the King/Riggs encounter. In recent times too, suggestions of a possible match between Andy Murray and Serena Williams have been dismissed by both parties. King/Riggs was a major watershed and clearly, a hard act for others to follow.
Earlier this year, King produced a documentary film of her match against Riggs forty years on, which was unveiled in July at the Annual Enshrinement Ceremony of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. It covered all aspects of the match and the legacy of that victory for the women’s game. Undoubtedly, the King victory gave a huge boost to the women’s game and helped increase the confidence of King and others to bring greater equality and respect for women’s tennis. Her match against Riggs is still the most viewed match of all time and had huge ramifications for the future of tennis.
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