What would have happened had she lost?
Turn your mental clock back to Sept. 20, 1973, and ask yourself the question.
What would have happened had Billie Jean King lost to Bobby Riggs?
It hardly bears thinking, imagining the sexist neanderthals braying over Riggs’s inherent masculine superiority, hearing the misogynistic misanthropes and their chorus of I-told-you-so’s, watching the ugly underside of America gleefully dancing in the Astrodome aisles.
There truly was that much at stake on a consequential sports night 50 years ago this Wednesday, when the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” between the self-proclaimed chauvinist Riggs and the equal rights activist King captivated a worldwide audience. They had come ostensibly to watch a tennis match, but the stakes went so far beyond game, set, and match.
Don’t just take it from me. Ask the protagonist herself.
What would have happened had she lost?
“I gave myself an ultimatum that I had to win. That helped,” King said over a Zoom call this past week.
“I thought if we lost we could lose all the steam we had going in women’s tennis and women’s sports. We were just getting started, I felt, thanks to Title IX [passed the year before, in 1972], where women could start getting athletic scholarships, which was major because we’d had no resources spent on us. We’d just started our women’s tour in ‘71, it was only the third year of professional tennis. I knew if I could win, when I would win, that I knew it was about social change, not just about sports.
“We needed social change and women’s sports could be a part of that change, gender equity, equality, everything that matters to each human being. It was starting to change the hearts and minds of people, and if we could start to change hearts and minds, then we’d have a chance to progress through Title IX, to changes like being able to get a credit card on our own. I knew we had 90 million people watching. We’d never have that again.
“This was our chance, I knew, to really make a difference for the rest of our lives.”
Now bring that clock forward 50 years, to the upcoming anniversary of King’s unforgettable straight-set victory over the ridiculous Riggs, and celebrate the woman who refused to lose, the 29-year-old superstar who swept past her opponent, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, by beating him at his own damn game, running his 55-year-old body all over the court while she handled his lobs, drops, and serves, forcing him to come to the net for a serve-and-volley contest his tired, unprepared bones had no chance of winning.
Celebrate the woman who took so much on her shoulders to play that match, to interrupt her packed professional schedule knowing she had to erase the memory of Margaret Court’s lopsided loss to Riggs four months earlier, to stand up for women everywhere who just wanted the opportunity to play. Celebrate the woman who took such an enormous symbolic step, one with five full decades of proof of unceasing impact and unending legacy. Just look at last weekend’s US Open championship television ratings, where Coco Gauff’s Saturday victory drew an average of 3.42 million viewers, more than a million more than Novak Djokovic’s record 24th Grand Slam title did a day later, and where both champions earned equal prize money.
The link from there to here is built through Billie Jean King.
“The Riggs match was a first huge steppingstone to real change,” she said. “I love women’s sports, but people then had no understanding of what women’s sports could do for a person, a girl. They knew for a boy, or really, they hadn’t thought about it, it was just part of the landscape. I knew it could change everything. We knew what women’s sport should be, knew what it could be.”
And she understood how important the visuals were. She knew the power of beating Riggs at his own game, of allowing herself to be carried onto the court like Cleopatra, surrounded by muscled, bare-chested men as she reclined on a feather-covered litter, but let none of that pomp and circumstance affect her focus. As much as King supported women’s rights movements led by contemporaries such as Gloria Steinem, she recalled those efforts as being “from the neck up,” while sports, with its inherent personal empowerment, its package of beauty, power, and grace, she knew that was her arena for change.
“In sports you’re for yourself, you have confidence, you trust your body, all the things the feminists were fighting for, we were doing. Women’s sports teaches you these things, resiliency, how to win, how to be in life, to bounce back,” King said.
“All these things were so important. And in this King-Riggs match, I’m thinking about all of it, bringing it to a head, to a focus, a real focus.”
When she won, all women won. All sports fans won. Women’s tennis is an ever-growing global sport, and King remains its greatest ambassador. The little kid from California who discovered a love for tennis only to look around at her country club confines and think, “Where is everyone else?” has never stopped fighting for opportunity and equality. Her philanthropic, leadership, and business ventures are vast and inspiring, coming soon to a Boston hockey arena near you, thanks to her role as an owner with the local representative in the newly formed PWHL.
It hasn’t happened because she won. But who knows how much of it would have happened had she lost. The “Battle of the Sexes,” with its record crowd of 30,000-plus inside the Houston Astrodome, with its mega ABC telecast anchored by the legendary Howard Cosell, was that consequential.
“Every single day as long as I go out of the apartment, someone brings up this match,” she said. “That’s how many have been touched by this.”