This week in 1973, in a highly publicised “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, top women’s player Billie Jean King, 29, beats Bobby Riggs, 55, a former number 1 ranked men’s player. Riggs (1918-1995), a self-proclaimed male chauvinist aka “tennis hustler”, had boasted that women were inferior, that they couldn’t handle the pressure of the game and that even at his age he could beat any female player. “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot. I’ll tell you why I’ll win: women don’t have the emotional stability.”
The match was a huge media event, witnessed in person by over 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and by another 50 million TV viewers worldwide. King made a Cleopatra-style entrance on a gold litter carried by men dressed as ancient slaves, while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models. “A strange combination of sociological milestone and circus,” as Newsweek called it.
King beat Riggs, won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and pocketed $100,000 winner-takes-all purse. King’s achievement not only helped legitimise women’s professional tennis and female athletes, but it was seen as a victory for women’s rights in general. In the same year, the U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament to hand out the same amount of prize money to winners of both sexes.
The 1973 match was the subject of a 2017 movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes.
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Text: History, Newsweek.