September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
On September 20, in Houston, twenty-nine-year-old Billie Jean King met fifty-five-year-old Bobby Riggs in a widely promoted “Battle of the Sexes” before the largest crowd ever to watch a tennis match up to that time. The spectacle was the sequel to a Mother’s Day match in which Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, had wiped out Margaret Court, the Wimbledon champion in 1963, 1965, and 1970, with a tricky assortment of dinks, drop shots, and lobs. That contest had taken place on a makeshift court before three thousand fans in remote Ramona, California, for a purse of ten thousand dollars. The King-Riggs showdown was played in the cavernous Astrodome for ten times the stake in front of ten times the crowd and was preceded by what seemed like ten thousand times the hype.
In the months following his demolition of Court, Riggs had put his name on a quickie autobiography, appeared on virtually every television show and magazine cover in the United States, and endorsed countless consumer products, capping it all off with the ultimate 1970s celebrity accolade: a Hai Karate cologne commercial. An American public that had never paid much attention to tennis was suddenly engrossed in the fine points of backhands, net play, and wood versus metal rackets. The King-Riggs match was widely credited with democratizing an upper-class sport, and to the horror of purists, democracy was accompanied by its inevitable concomitant, bad taste.
Punsters rang incessant changes on the similarity in sound between lib (as in women’s lib ) and lob (Riggs’s favorite shot). Riggs launched into an exaggerated male-chauvinist-pig shtick for anyone with a camera, microphone, or notepad—praising Henry VIII, for example, because “he really knew how to treat his women.” Promoters hired a group of muscular athletes to carry King to the court in a Cleopatra-type litter and a dozen buxom young women, called Bobby Riggs’s Bosom Buddies, to follow the self-proclaimed sex symbol on his daily rounds.
Bookies had made Riggs a 5-2 betting favorite, but in an anticlimax that would remain unmatched until the final episode of Seinfeld , King dispatched him easily in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Unlike Riggs, who had neglected his practice and vitamin regimen to concentrate on selling himself, King spent the prematch period working on her game and did only a few endorsements. (Sunbeam paid her twenty-five thousand dollars to plug its Mist Stick hair curler-styler on the questionable assumption that women would want their hair to look like Billy Jean King’s.) As a result Riggs was panting well before the end of the contest (three out of five sets, at his insistence), while King suffered only mild leg cramps. Having proved once and for all that the best female tennis player of her generation could overcome a washed-up geezer, King went on to retire in 1984 with four U.S. Open and six Wimbledon singles championships to her credit. Riggs banked his earnings and returned to the country clubs of Southern California to continue hustling all comers for any stakes desire.