By Kurt Snibbe
The Orange County Register
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Early in 1973 Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match, saying a middle-aged man could still beat the best woman player in the world. For many, the event and King’s Victory ushered in a new era for women in sports.
The Orange County Register
A film about one of the most famous tennis matches in history opens this week.
On Sept. 20, 1973, Long Beach native and women’s tennis star Billie Jean King faced off against Los Angeles native Bobby Riggs in a $100,000 winner-take-all exhibition dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Riggs called King the “women’s libber leader.” The publicity of the event, combined with the passage of Title IX law, anti-gender discrimination, is largely credited with an increase in women playing sports.
The 55-year-old Riggs, from Lincoln Heights, believed he could beat any woman player. “I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates,” he said. Riggs won Wimbledon (1939) and U.S. Open (1939, 1941) championships.
30,000 fans watched at the Houston Astrodome and the event had an estimated 90 million TV audience.
Early in 1973 Riggs challenged King to a match, saying a middle-aged man could still beat the best woman player in the world.
King avoided Riggs, but Margaret Court of Australia took the offer. Court won 21 women’s Grand Slam titles and temporarily retired in 1972 to prepare for the birth of her first child. She was ranked No. 2 in the world when she agreed to play the match for a $10,000 payday.
The event was a promoted by San Diego real estate developer Ray Watt, who wanted to lure investors to his new estates for sale in Ramona. The match was watched by 3,500 spectators and broadcast to a national audience. Riggs won 6-2, 6-1. It became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
If Riggs did not beat Court, the second match against King would never have been arranged or have had the media attention that it did.
Riggs lost to King, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and King said after the victory, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match.”
Battle of Champions
Another famous tennis showdown was 40-year old Jimmy Connors vs. 35-year old Martina Navratilova on Sept. 25, 1992 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The match gave $500,000 to the winner in addition to appearance fees. Connors later revealed in his book he bet $1 million on himself to win in straight sets and not lose more than eight games. Connors won, 7-5, 6-2.
The legitimacy of the Battle of the Sexes match has been questioned because of Bobby Riggs’s gambling issues as well.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born in Long Beach in 1943 and named after her father, who fought in World War II.
She didn’t pick up tennis until age 11 and became the first tennis player to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1972. Beyond the sports world, she has been a spokeswoman for gender equality, gay rights and social justice.
Billie Jean and her brother went to high school at Long Beach Poly. Her brother, Randy, became a major league baseball player.
The tennis center in Long Beach is named in King’s honor and in 2008, the site of the U.S. Open was named the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
In 2010, her alma mater, Cal State Los Angeles, dedicated the Billie Jean King Athletic Complex.
In 2009, King was the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Title IX impact
Women’s college athletes went from about 32,000 in 1972 to 191,131 in 2011.
Source: NCAA, Mother Jones
Women competing against men
* On September 23, 1992, Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in a major professional hockey game when she was goaltender during an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL.
* In 2010, professional bowler Kelly Kulick became the first woman to defeat a male field of bowlers in a Professional Bowlers Tour tournament.
* Ila Borders of La Mirada played baseball for Southern California College and Whittier College in the 1990s. She signed with the St. Paul Saints in 1997 and played professionally for several minor league teams until 2000.
* Janet Guthrie began became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977. She finished ninth in the Indy 500 in 1978. Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 in 1977 and she raced in 33 NASCAR races over four seasons.
* Shirley Muldowney won her first major drag racing race in 1971. She became the first person to win three NHRA Top Fuel championships (1977, ’80, ’82).
Sources: The Associated Press, USTA, ESPN, NCAA, Tennis.com, Entertainment, Mother Jones Photos by The Associated Press and Wikimedia Commons