In September 1973, Time magazine wrote that the impending “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs could not have happened five years prior, and “five years from now [will] not mean anything.”
In their post-match coverage, they wrote, “[It] was a performance full of tinsel and glamour, signifying nothing — except that the hustle is over.”
Boy, did Time magazine ever have it wrong.
In fact, in 1973, almost everyone had it wrong. The Vegas odds were on Riggs, sports commentators favored Rigges, newspaper columnists predicted Riggs, and when Chris Evert was asked on prime time national television who she thought would win the match, she confidently answered, “Bobby Riggs.”
In a recent documentary on HBO, Evert covers her face with her hands when she’s shown that clip. Laughing, she says, “I was such an idiot.”
Last Tuesday was the 35th anniversary of “The Battle of the Sexes” — the epoch that has become the women’s sports’ world’s equivalent of the BC/AD split.
I grew up with bedtime stories of Charlotte spelling out letters in her web to save Wilbur, the Pevensie children falling through the wardrobe to Narnia, and Billie Jean King beating the pants off Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome.
To hear my dad tell it, Bobby Riggs was a loud-mouthed, chauvenistic hustler who thought he could beat Billie Jean King just because he was a man. Oh, he’d been a great tennis player to be sure, a formindable oponent. But in the weeks leading up to the match, he spent all his time mouthing off that women belonged in the kitchen and bedroom.
Billie Jean King, my dad told me, wasn’t intimidated by Riggs’ trash talk: she played right along.Then on the night of their match, she rode into the Astrodome like Cleopatra, and trounced him in straight sets. She handled Riggs’ lob, she took away his dropshot. Nearly every point she hit was a winner; he never even touched them.
In later years, I was pleased to discover that while my dad had it all wrong about Narnia (it was imaginary!), he had it exactly right about “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Billie Jean King’s win justified Title IX, solidified the Women’s Tennis Association, and propelled the women’s movement so much farther forward.
“Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women,” The New York Times said in ’73.
Venus Williams said it better in 2007 when, for the first time ever, the women’s winner of Wimbledon won as much money as the men’s winner. Holding her trophy up on Centre Court, she said to the crowd, “Billie Jean King fought for years, and no one deserves this more than her. She’s done so much for women’s tennis, and I wouldn’t be here without her.”
In 1973, the American people needed a hero. “Watergate, inflation, shortages—the catalogue of ills is dispiriting to contemplate,” Time wrote.
Replace “Watergate” with “Iraq” and the catalog of ills sounds eerily familiar.
I think we need a hero once again, but what if we’re looking in the wrong place. Perhaps it’s not a new president that will inspire us to greatness. Perhaps what we need is a King.