Today, tennis players like Serena Williams and Venus Williams are widely known for their athletic achievements and could arguably be considered the faces for women’s tennis. Long before the Williams sisters arrived on the scene, women’s tennis and women’s sports in general struggled with gaining acceptance from the public until one particular tennis player came along: Billie Jean King.
On June 23, 1972, Title IX was passed to prevent educational institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on sex. Before the passing of Title IX, very few opportunities existed for female athletes. At the time, the NCAA offered no athletic scholarships or championships for women’s teams. Even after Title IX passed, women’s sports were still treated as novelty and remained a joke in the public’s eye.
A large turning point for this movement came a year later, when 29-year-old King was challenged to a tennis match by 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed as one of the most iconic “Battle of the Sexes” matches. King so far had a decorated career, with six Wimbledon singles championships and four U.S. Open titles along with ranking No. 1 in the world for five years.
Riggs was a top men’s tennis player in the 1930s and 1940s and had long been retired from the game, but still made claims that even someone as old as him could beat the top female players of the 1970s. King initially rejected Riggs’ challenge but changed her mind when Riggs went on to defeat Margaret Court, who was in the middle of earning her seventh year-end ranking as the world No.1 female tennis player and had defeated King earlier that year.
The match was set to be held on Sept. 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome and the winner would walk away with a prize of $100,000. It was broadcast on primetime television and became the most watched tennis match with 50 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 90 million people worldwide tuned in to watch. This was an outstanding number during a time where women’s tennis was considered unpopular and unable to bring in sales and audiences.
Early on in the match, King fell behind Riggs 3-2 but was determined to come back and was able to close out the set. Instead of playing her usual aggressive game, King fell back to the baseline and easily returned Riggs’ lobs and soft shots, a technique that took Court by surprise in her match against Riggs. Riggs initially started playing the match in a joking manner but as he fell further and further behind, he intensified his demeanor. In the end, King was triumphant and won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
King knew that if she wanted to maintain the little progress that women’s sports had made over the past year, she had no choice but to win against Riggs. Yet, to her it was about much more than defeating Riggs; after the match King stated, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s (tennis) tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
The aftermath of the King’s win brought tennis and women’s sports to the forefront of the conversation. The match was a landmark moment for women’s sports and in September of 2017 it even went on to become a movie called, “The Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. To this day, King’s victory and the passage of Title IX are often both credited with igniting a boom in women’s sports participation and empowering women across the board.