Tennis great Billie Jean King made headlines this past week when the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced it would be celebrating 50 years of awarding equal prize money at the U.S. Open with 2023 theme art commemorating King’s efforts on the occasion.
“No individual has done more to secure equality for female athletes than Billie Jean King,” USTA president Brian Hainline said in a statement. “Her impact goes far beyond the tennis court, and there is no better time to celebrate her legacy than on the anniversary of this historic milestone.”
This year’s theme art – designed by 40-year-old illustrator Camila Pinheiro from São Paulo, Brazil – features an eye-catching portrait of a 1973-era King in front of a colorful, graphic New York skyline.
“I want people to look back and see the achievements and value that we have in the present,” Pinheiro said. “I want this art to convey a sense of great excitement for the achievement and justice achieved by this great woman, and for us to continue to value women and recognize each one for their contributions today.”
Reflecting on the equal-pay accomplishment, King recently told USA Today that, “It was a lot of hard work.” That work actually started one year prior, when King was struck by the notion of fighting for equal pay during her winning press conference at the 1972 U.S. Open.
“I won and got $10,000, while the men’s champion, Ilie Nastase, won and got $25,000,” she explained. “This was ridiculous, so I said, ‘I don’t think the women are going to be back next year. We’re not going to be back in 1973 unless we get equal prize money.’ I’m saying this but just hoping and trusting the other players would go along with it at that point.”
King recalls taking matters into her own hands, approaching the challenge “as a businesswoman” and personally encouraging sponsors to commit more prize money. Her efforts succeeded, and at the 1973 U.S. Open, the men’s and women’s champion each received $25,000.
The USTA’s recent announcement notably came on March 14, which is known as “Equal Pay Day” by the National Committee on Pay Equity. The day symbolizes how far into the new year women must work to earn what men earned by Dec. 31 of last year. As On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a closer look at one of the most notable chapters in King’s legendary career – and one that also took place during that pivotal year of 1973: “The Battle of the Sexes.”
The now-famous showdown between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and a 29-year-old King was televised internationally from the Houston Astrodome, where 30,472 fans were in the stands while an estimated 50 million people tuned in in the United States and 90 million watched worldwide. King won in straight sets, but needless to say, the event was no straightforward affair.
“Though the atmosphere surrounding King’s shocking 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Riggs took on all the conflicting tones of a political convention, championship prizefight, rock festival, tent revival, town meeting, Super Bowl and sick joke, what the match finally got down to was a dazzling clinical exhibition of tennis by Billie Jean,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick in his definitive narrative of the day titled, “There She Is, Ms. America.”
Riggs, a top player in the 1940s, was ranked year-end No. 1 three times and had won six major championships during his career, including three Wimbledon titles. He retired from professional tennis in 1951 but remained a master promoter of himself and of tennis. Craving a return to the spotlight and calling the women’s game inferior, Riggs claimed that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.
Riggs first challenged King, who declined, and Margaret Court stepped in. Thirty years old at the time, Court had recently returned to tennis after giving birth to her first child in March 1972 and was in the middle of earning her seventh year-end No. 1 ranking. More than 5,000 fans turned out for the match, which was held May 13, 1973, in Ramona, California. Televised by CBS Sports, Riggs used a mix of drop shots and lobs to keep Court off balance, notching a quick victory (6-2, 6-1) and landing on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time.
Riggs then kicked his taunting up a notch, turning his sights on King once again and calling her a “women’s libber leader.” “I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates,” Riggs said. “We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.”
King accepted this time around, agreeing to a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973. At a July press conference announcing the $100,000 winner-take-all match, which also included at least $75,000 each in ancillary money, Riggs said, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman, and they don’t have the emotional stability.”
King responded by calling him a “creep.” But come match day, she also embraced the spectacle that came with the showdown. She entered the court like Cleopatra, riding on a feather-adorned gold litter carried by toga-wearing members of the Rice University men’s track team. Not to be upstaged, Riggs rode in on a rickshaw surrounded by scantily clad women known as “Bobby’s bosom buddies.” King then presented Riggs with a squealing piglet – a symbol of male chauvinism – and in return received from Riggs a large “Sugar Daddy” lollipop, which she said she’d donate to an orphanage. Riggs played the first three games wearing a yellow jacket with the “Sugar Daddy” logo on the back.
Normally a serve-and-volley player, King made a concerted effort to wear Riggs down with baseline rallies. She won the first set 6-4, recording several winners and securing the final point on a double fault by Riggs. Riggs held the upper hand briefly at the start of the second set, when he broke King’s serve in the first game, but he eventually lost the set 6-3. Visibly tiring, he lost the third set 6-3 as well. When Riggs hit a high backhand volley into the net on match point, King flung her racket into the air in celebration.
“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said afterward. “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.”
King received her $100,000 check from boxer George Foreman, one of several celebrities on hand at the Astrodome, and subsequently landed multiple endorsement deals including Adidas sneakers, Wilson tennis rackets, Colgate toothpaste and Sunbeam hair curlers. Her income reportedly neared $1 million in 1974.
After the fact, Riggs gave King due credit, saying: “She played within herself all night. She was never extended. The girl was all over me the whole time. I didn’t know Billie Jean was so quick.”
King retired from competitive singles in 1983 with 12 major championships on her resume, including six Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Opens. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. She’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year lifetime achievement award, and in 1990 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. 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 achievements, King might still be best known for a single victory.
“I thought maybe we would go away if I didn’t beat Bobby,” she told USA Today. “Title IX had just passed the year before, and I was worried women’s sports would be in trouble if I didn’t win. I knew people would be making bets, husbands and wives, sororities and fraternities. It was that big of a deal and all these years later, people still come up to me to tell me what it meant to them.”