Remembering history: Billie Jean King ushered in a new era of women’s equality by winning the 1973 “battle of the sexes”.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs arm wrestling

Tennis great Billie Jean King made headlines last week when the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced it would be celebrating 50 years of equal prize money at the US Open 2023 with themed artwork commemorating King’s efforts on the occasion.

“No person has done more to ensure women’s sports equality than Billie Jean King,” USTA President Brian Hainlin said in a statement. “Their impact extends well beyond the tennis court and there is no better time to celebrate their legacy than the anniversary of this historic milestone.”

This year’s themed art – designed by the 40-year-old illustrator Camila Pinheiro from São Paulo, Brazil – features a striking 1973 portrait of a king against a colorful, graphic New York skyline.

“I want people to look back and see the achievements and value we have in the present,” said Pinheiro. “I want this art to convey a sense of great excitement for the accomplishment and justice achieved by this great woman and for us to continue to value women and recognize each and every one for their contribution today.”

Looking back on the achievements of equal pay, King recently told USA Today that: “It was a lot of hard work.” This work actually began a year earlier when King was struck by the idea of ​​fighting for equal pay during her winning press conference at the 1972 US Open.

“I won and got $10,000 while the men’s champion Ily Nastase, won and got $25,000,” she explained. “That was ridiculous, so I said, ‘I don’t think the women are going to come back next year. We won’t be back in 1973 if we don’t get the same prize money.’ I say that but I just hope and trust that the other players would play along at this point.”

King recalls taking matters into her own hands, approaching the challenge “as a businesswoman” and personally encouraging sponsors to provide more prize money. Their efforts were successful, and at the 1973 US Open, the men’s and women’s champions each received $25,000.

Notably, the most recent announcement from the USTA came on March 14, known as “Equal Pay Day” by the National Committee on Pay Equity. The day symbolizes how far into the new year women have to work to earn what men were earning up until December 31 last year. As On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a closer look at one of the most remarkable chapters in King’s legendary career – and one that also took place in that pivotal year of 1973: “The Battle of the Sexes.”

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The now famous showdown between 55-year-olds Bobby Riggs and a 29-year-old king was televised internationally from the Houston Astrodome, where 30,472 fans sat in the stands while an estimated 50 million people tuned in in the United States and 90 million worldwide watched. King won in straight sets, but of course the event wasn’t an easy affair.

“Although the atmosphere surrounding King’s shocking 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win over Riggs has all the contradictory tones of a political convention, a championship prize fight, a rock festival, a tent revival, a town meeting, a Super Bowl and a sick joke, What ultimately defined the match was a scintillating, clinical rendition of tennis by Billie Jean. wrote Sports Illustrated Curry Kirkpatrick in his final narration of the day, titled “There She Is, Ms. America.”

Tennis player Billie Jean King is carried on palanquin

Billie Jean King is carried onto the court for her tennis match with 55 year old aging tennis star Bobby Riggs. (Getty Images archive)

A top player in the 1940s, Riggs was voted No. 1 three times by the end of the year and had won six major championships during his career, including three Wimbledon titles. He retired from professional tennis in 1951 but remained a masterful promoter of himself and tennis. Riggs longed for a return to the limelight and labeled women’s football as inferior. He claimed that even at his current age of 55, he could still beat any of the best players.

Riggs first challenged King, who declined, and Margaret Hof Court, then 30, had recently returned to tennis after giving birth to her first child in March 1972 and was in the process of securing the No. 1 for the seventh year-end. More than 5,000 fans attended the game, which took place on May 13, 1973 in Ramona, California. Televised by CBS Sports, Riggs used a mix of drop shots and lobs to throw Court off balance, scoring a quick win (6-2, 6-1) and nabbing the covers of Sports Illustrated and time.

Riggs then upped his taunt, turning his attention back to King and calling her a “women’s liberation leader.” “I’ll play them on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates,” Riggs said. “We have to keep this sex thing going. I am now a woman specialist.”

King accepted this time, agreeing to a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs on September 20, 1973. At a July press conference announcing the $100,000 Winner Takes All match, which also included at least $75,000 in side money, Riggs said, “I’m going to tell you why I’m winning. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.”

King responded by calling him a “gripper.” But on game day, she also welcomed the spectacle that accompanied the showdown. She entered the courtyard like Cleopatra, riding a feathered golden sedan chair carried by toga-clad members of Rice University’s men’s running team. Not to fade into the background, Riggs rode in on a rickshaw surrounded by scantily clad women known as “Bobby’s bosom buddies.” King then presented Riggs with a squeaky piglet – a symbol of male chauvinism – in exchange for Riggs giving him a large “Sugar Daddy” lollipop, which she said she would donate to an orphanage. Riggs played the first three games in a yellow jacket with the “Sugar Daddy” logo on the back.

Carried Bobby Riggs onto the tennis court

Bobby Riggs holds a large Sugar Daddy lollipop while being carried onto the court for his match against Billie Jean King. (Getty Images archive)

King, usually a serve-and-volley player, made a concerted effort to wear down Riggs with baseline rallies. She won the first set 6-4, recorded multiple winners and secured the final point through a double fault from Riggs. Riggs briefly maintained the upper hand early in the second set when he broke King’s serve in the first game but eventually lost the set 6-3. Visibly tiring, he also lost the third set 3:6. When Riggs netted a high backhand volley on match point, King threw her racquet in the air in celebration.

“I thought it would take us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said afterwards. “It would ruin women [tennis] Tour and affect the self-esteem of all women. Beating a 55-year-old wasn’t a thrill for me. The thrill was introducing a lot of new people to tennis.”

King received her $100,000 check from Boxer George Vormann, one of several celebrities present at the Astrodome, and subsequently landed several endorsement deals, including Adidas sneakers, Wilson tennis racquets, Colgate toothpaste, and Sunbeam hair curlers. Her income is reported to have been nearly $1 million in 1974.


Billie Jean King gets her check from boxer George Foreman after defeating Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexs. (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images Photo Library via Getty Images)

With hindsight, Riggs paid tribute to King, saying: “She played inside herself all night. It was never renewed. The girl was all over me the whole time. I didn’t know Billie Jean was that fast.”

King retired from competitive singles in 1983 with 12 major championships on her résumé, including six Wimbledon titles and four US Open. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Award for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and in 2020 the Federation Cup was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup in her honor.

Yet for all her accolades and accomplishments, King is perhaps still best known for a single win.

“I thought maybe if I didn’t beat Bobby we would disappear,” she told USA Today. “Title IX had just passed the year before and I was concerned that if I didn’t win, women’s sport would be in trouble. I knew people would make bets, husbands and wives, sororities and fraternities. It was such a big deal and all these years later people still come to me to tell me what it meant to them.”

Learn about the legendary women who blazed the trail in this five-part series, Remembering History, as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features Alice CoachmanThe US women’s national team, winner of the 1991 FIFA Women’s World CupTennis great Althea Gibsonracer Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean Kingwin Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes”.

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Remembering history: Billie Jean King ushered in a new era of women’s equality by winning the 1973 “battle of the sexes”. originally appeared on

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