'Battle of the Sexes' a resounding win for women

AP Photo

Billie Jean King showed women could pack a punch as she wiped the smile off Bobby Riggs' face with a straight-sets victory.

Greatness in sports is not always defined by the final score. Sometimes it's by the impact an event or a performer leaves on the sport and society.

Roger Bannister's first sub-four-minute mile -- 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds in 1954 -- shattered a barrier that had seemed unattainable physically and mentally. Secretariat's 31-length romp in the 1973 Belmont Stakes en route to a Triple Crown redefined the sport of kings. Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics reshaped gymnastics and set a standard of perfection for all subjective sports.

But numbers could not possibly speak to the long-term significance of the Baltimore Colts' overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 National Football League championship game, affectionately labeled the greatest game ever played. And how to measure the full meaning of Jackie Robinson's first appearance in a major league baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947?

Then there was the "Battle of the Sexes," the nationally televised tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that turned the sports world upside down.

Yes, King-Riggs was that important. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX on Saturday, the significance of what took place that September night in 1973 transcends King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory, the 30,492 curiosity seekers who filled the Houston Astrodome and the millions more lured to their television screens by the prospect of a self-described "tennis hustler" laughing all the way to a $100,000 payday at the expense of another nervous, insecure female athlete.

To watch what unfolded that week and that night -- I had a courtside seat -- was to witness an unveiling that even now seems surreal. Forget the fact that Riggs, at age 55, was decades past his prime as a Wimbledon champion. More relevant was his methodical 6-2, 6-1 destruction of another female tennis icon, Margaret Court, that May, a beating so complete that the entire women's movement wobbled precariously.

Few males in and out of sports at the time felt women deserved the sweeping gender equality that had been signed into law the preceding year. Female athletes, the word went, lacked the finishing skills and mental discipline on the playing field that they demonstrated in the home or kitchen. The longest distance for women in Olympic track and field at the 1972 Munich Olympics was 1,500 meters. A marathon? Forget it.

Consider the scene in the Astrodome for King-Riggs. It was more circus spectacle than sports event, with King being carried into the arena on a litter, resembling Cleopatra more than a 29-year-old woman who had swept the women's singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon that year.

And Riggs, for all his promotional banter, never thought King could sustain the intensity of a best-of-five-sets match. Women, after all, played best of three sets. Walk in the park was the word. Get your bets down on Bobby.

AP Photo

Billie Jean King's victory inspired women to take to the tennis court -- and the running course and the gym -- by the millions.

That's where King proved them wrong, including me, who, after covering the Riggs-Court match in California, picked Riggs to win in straight sets.

While Riggs was busy selling himself to anyone who would listen, King knew she was carrying more than a personal banner.

"Pride matters a lot more than money," she said, so uncommonly serious and secluded in her prematch training that some observers took it as nerves. But in fact, a jittery Riggs, who the day before had said, "I have no nerves," double-faulted at 4-5, 30-40 to decide the first set.

The ramifications of King's straight-sets victory went well beyond tennis. It was the way King won, using serve-and-volley tools synonymous with the men's game, that struck a blow for her and women around the world. At 2-4 in the third set, exhausted from countless cross-court retrieving, a deflated Riggs suffered hand cramps.

Cynics who suggested that the match really proved little -- that Riggs was an old man subsisting on his daily regimen of 400 or so vitamins -- missed the larger picture. King proved that female athletes could survive pressure-filled situations and that men were as susceptible to nerves as women.

In the aftermath of King-Riggs, the expansion of programs for women -- at the age-group, high school, college and Olympic levels -- exploded. Housewives who had sat on the sideline raising children suddenly embraced tennis, running and the gym. Corporations signed on for large-scale sponsorships. Fitness became fashionable, and high-profile events such as the New York City and Boston marathons had waves of eager female entrants, leading to a women's marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, won by an American Joan Benoit Samuelson.

Then came college scholarships for women in previously all-male sports such as crew, lacrosse, volleyball and soccer, in addition to field hockey and softball.

Through it all, King never slowed. There were more U.S. Open (1974) and Wimbledon (1975) singles titles, a No. 1 ranking (1974), enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1987) and success as a nonplaying captain of victorious U.S. Federation Cup teams.

But more important, she never wavered from her steadfast message of equality or from motivating others. She helped establish the Women's Sports Foundation and World Team Tennis, which she co-founded and in which she continues to play an active role.

Even now, 40 years after Title IX landed with such dramatic impact and almost 40 years since the Battle of the Sexes became an anthem for a revolution, King's voice still echoes loud and clear at venues as diverse as Simmons College, for a closing-night keynote address to a women's symposium in April; the U.S. Senate, where she testified about Title IX on June 19; and the White House, where she participated in a Title IX panel the following day.

"Sometimes circumstances just get you to do it," she said of the timing that produced her initial involvement and led to a lifelong commitment with such stunning results. "The women's movement was getting stronger. It was a very tumultuous times in the '60s. We're the first generation that started change being pretty rapid. Now social media is crazy with technology. I think we were the most flexible generation of our time because there was so much chaos and tumult. ... The timing was perfect. It was also a sense of desperation. We had to do something."

Neil Amdur is a former sportswriter for The New York Times who served as sports editor of The Times from 1990 through 2002.

Related Content