The True Story Behind Billie Jean King’s Victorious “Battle of the Sexes”

The new film Battle of the Sexes (starring Emma Stone and Steven Carell above) tells the story of the 1973 tennis match between former tennis star Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King. King had worked for years already to elevate the sport of tennis. She campaigned for the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the French Open to become professional events. When Wimbledon did in 1968, King was aghast to learn that the men's winner received £2,000, while she only got £750 for winning the women's division. King then dedicated herself to parity for women in sports. When Riggs bragged that women's tennis was inferior and that at age 55, he could beat any of the top woman in tennis, she knew it was a publicity stunt, but it rubbed her the wrong way.

Initially, King didn’t want to participate in the Battle, but after top-ranked player Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee) lost to Riggs in the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” King felt it was necessary. Not only had the loss given fuel to Riggs’ sexist insults, she was worried about what effect the diminishment of women’s tennis might have on Title IX. The legislation, passed only a year earlier and still the subject of debate, was essential to women athletes receiving scholarships and equal opportunities. “Billie Jean King is a very far thinking person who sees the big picture,” explains Jentsch. “She wasn't alone in seeing Title IX’s importance, but she really understood it would mean a lot for female athletes in the future.”

Explaining her reasoning behind accepting Riggs’ challenge, she later said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

The movie only scratches the surface of what Billie Jean King did for the sport of tennis, which you can read at Smithsonian. Incidentally, the four major tournaments eventually all awarded the same prize money to men and women …in 2007.


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