The true story behind new movie Battle of the Sexes: A tennis match that changed history.


Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs was, in his own words, a “chauvinist pig”.

“Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order,” he once said.

They certainly did not belong on the tennis court.

Riggs firmly believed female tennis players ought to be paid 25 per cent of what male tennis players earned, given they “play about 25 per cent as good as men”.

Up until then, the world had looked pretty good to Riggs. In the early 1970s that’s how much women tennis players were paid – approximately one quarter of what men were.

But the landscape was beginning to shift beneath Riggs’ feet.

It was the infancy of the women’s liberation movement, and Riggs had a point to prove.

Women wanted equality, but to Riggs’ mind, they simply were not equal. They did not deserve pay parity in the game of tennis when their male counterparts were infinitely faster, stronger and more skilled than they were.

This was no longer a matter of discussion. Riggs was intent on confirming it.

Margaret Court versus Bobby Riggs. Image via The History Channel.

In 1973, Australia's Margaret Court was the number one ranked women's tennis player in the world. And when Riggs, in his 50s and retired, suggested they play each other, Court accepted the challenge.

The match was to take place on Mother's Day.

It is believed, 44 years later, that Court wasn't properly prepared. NPR writes, "Court, who wasn't invested in feminism... treated it as an exhibition for money," and journalist Selena Roberts argues, "She gave no thought to its social consequences. Americans were tossing bras, girdles and nylons into trash bins, but the women's movement didn't move Margaret. She was a Mrs., not a Ms."

Retrospectively, the match is referred to as the 'Mother's Day Massacre'. Court lost in two sets, 6-2, 6-1. "I didn't expect him to play like that," Court told reporters afterwards. "We girls don't play like that."


But Riggs wasn't done.

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He set his sights on Wimbledon champion, 29-year-old Billie Jean King.

"I want the women's libber leader!" he said. "I'll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates."

King was at the top of her game, whereas Riggs was drinking Heineken beer as though it were water, and had developed a substantial gambling problem.

It quickly became clear that this would not be a 'friendly match'. This was about validating the position of women in professional tennis, and sport at large. Ultimately, it was a symbol of the women's liberation movement - a young, feminist, outspoken woman facing-off against an outdated, older, misogynistic traditionalist.

This was about so much more than tennis.

King spent the summer training, while Riggs drank, gambled and partied until late at night.

In the lead up to the match, Riggs told reporters, "I'll tell you why I'll win. She's a woman, and they don't have the emotional stability." King simply called him a "creep".

On September 20, 1973, 30, 472 people arrived at Houston Astrodome to watch the Battle of the Sexes, making it the largest crowd ever to watch a tennis match on U.S. soil.


Worldwide, more than 90 million people tuned in to see if Riggs, whose odds were 2.5 to 1, would beat King.

It was a spectacle unlike any other. Riggs presented King with a Sugar Daddy lollipop, and she was carried in by a group of shirtless men, and gave Riggs a piglet.

And what occurred on that day, just over 43 years ago, would change the course of history.

King did not only beat Riggs. She eviscerated him.

In three sets, King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

"She was too good, too fast," Riggs later told reporters. "She returned all my passing shots and made great plays off them."

King was awarded a $100,000 cheque and the following year made over $1 million in endorsements. She helped found a women's players union and a nonprofit advocacy group for female athletes which eventually turned into the Women's Tennis Association. King wanted to end the inequality of pay between male and female winners - which, in 2017, is a reality.

"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," King has since said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

Martina Navratilova, considered one of the best tennis players of all time, told CNN, "Billie Jean, she just pushed the clock forward, she sped up the process... Any progress is measured by jumps, and that was one of those jumps that pushed the clock forward and allowed us to move forward as women athletes and to make a career out of it so it wasn't just a hobby."

The story of King versus Riggs has now been adapted into a Hollywood movie, Battle of the Sexes, featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. It explores not only the history-making match, but also the adversity they were both experiencing at the time that served as a backdrop.

In the sporting world, tennis has pioneered a vision of equality.

And that is, at least in part, thanks to Billie Jean King.

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