Four decades ago, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs went down in tennis history. The pair engaged each other in a match dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes," which made international headlines and became one of the most important events in the sports world. Now, their history-making match is getting the big screen treatment.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), and starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs, Battle of the Sexes will recount the events leading up to their tennis encounter, as well as its aftermath.
While the film is receiving rave reviews, biopics aren't always 100 percent faithful to the historic events they're adapting. Some stories may be stretched out and some plot points may be outright made up for the purposes of storytelling. I've always enjoyed knowing the history behind a movie based on real-life events before watching it, because it helps me appreciate the story more.
With that in mind, I wanted to delve into the real story behind the "Battle of the Sexes," so that we can have a more informed experience when sitting down to watch the film.
The Lead-Up To The Match
Back in 1973, King was enjoying great success in her tennis career. Riggs's situation was a bit different. He was considered the world's best tennis player in the 1940s, and he made millions of dollars betting on himself in matches. But his fame had become a distant memory three decades later. Riggs was desperately looking for a way to get back under the spotlight, and he found it: He claimed that female players were inferior to men, and that even at his advanced age of 55, he would be able to easily beat the best female player in a match.
In an effort to prove his point, he challenged three players: Chris Evert, Margaret Court and #BillieJeanKing. Riggs was more interested in facing off against King, calling her "the sex leader of the revolutionary pack," in order to get her attention. King, a longtime advocate of gender equality, refused, stating that the match would do nothing for women's tennis. As a result, Riggs challenged Court (who coincidentally was King's longtime rival).
Wanting to earn the hefty $10,000 cash prize, Court accepted. Even though King rejected the chance to play, she was concerned by the fact that Court didn't seem to grasp the importance of their match for female tennis players. King's concern was such, in fact, that the said this to the press prior to the event:
"Our reputation is at stake, and I'm afraid Bobby will win. Here is an old jerk who dyes his hair, waddles like a duck and has trouble seeing. We have nothing to gain."
Their game took place on May 13, 1973, and it didn't go well for Court. Riggs had been preparing better than ever to be in the best shape possible, training over six hours per day. He won the match in only 57 minutes, and the event went down in sports history as the "Mother's Day Massacre."
That was a wake-up call for King. Court's loss convinced her to take on the challenge. Riggs was just as enthusiastic to see that happen, as he told the press after the game:
"Now I want King bad. I'll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates. We got to keep this sex thing going. I'm a woman specialist now."
According to Fortune's Shawn Tully, Riggs's sexist attitude was an act he put on in order to hype up the matches, but it didn't matter. It was that attitude that inspired King to beat him. Their match was arranged to take place in at the Houston Astrodome, on September 20, 1973. This time, the winner would take home a $100,000 reward.
What Happened During The Game?
The match became a worldwide event, with a whopping 30,472 spectators and an estimated 50 million TV viewers. With those numbers, both participants gave their best efforts to play up the hype. Emulating Cleopatra, King entered the court carried by four musclebound men. Riggs arrived on a rickshaw pulled by various models. Once the two players came face-to-face, they gave each other some... well, peculiar gifts.
Riggs gifted King a giant Sugar Daddy Lollipop (he was being sponsored by the company) and King upped the ante by giving him a piglet (later named Larimore Hustle). The animal was meant to represent Riggs's self-description as a chauvinistic pig. After those outrageous introductions were done, the game kicked off.
Unfortunately for King, the match started with the odds against her. She fell behind during the first set and her struggle to keep up with Riggs made people think this would be a recreation of the Mother's Day Massacre that had taken place just a few months prior. But that wasn't the case. King put her game face on, and against all expectations, she aced the match.
She stayed at the baseline, counteracting Riggs's defensive play style, and the strategy worked. Riggs became increasingly frustrated and she eventually beat her opponent, winning the three sets –– 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 ––. After that, she took home the mouth-watering $100,000 reward.
What Happened After The Tennis Match?
People often expect happy-ever-after-like endings for inspirational tales like this one, but the aftermath of the game was anything but happy –– especially for King. You see, numerous critics tried to undermine her win by stating it wasn't fair for the then 29-year-old King to take on someone as old as Riggs.
The criticism was especially harsh from Jack Kramer, a former Tennis player whom King ran into conflict with during the '70s. He was unwilling to change the fact that women earned only 15 percent of what men received for winning the Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament. According to David J. Phillips' On The Day book, Kramer stated of King's win:
"I don't think Billie Jean played all that well. She hit a lot of short balls which Bobby could have taken advantage of had he been in shape. I would never take anything away from Billie Jean — because she was smart enough to prepare herself properly — but it might have been different if Riggs hadn't kept running around."
As if that wasn't troubling enough, it was also rumored that Riggs actually threw the match. Why would he do such a thing, you ask? According to some aficionados, Riggs was neck-deep in debt with the mob, so he bet against himself prior to the match and allowed himself to lose in order to collect the money and pay the money he owed. That has never been confirmed, however. On the contrary, it has been denied numerous times.
Riggs is said to have been heavily affected by his loss, to the point where he spent months dealing with depression, and even challenged King to a rematch. King rejected the offer, and Riggs reportedly contemplated suing her because their contracts had the option of a rematch. Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Neither Riggs nor King knew each other prior to the match, but after the whole media circus died down, they became good friends.
In fact, King called Riggs a day prior to his death in 1995 (Riggs had been battling prostate cancer for close to seven years), and the last words they said to each other were "I love you." To give you a better example of their bond, during an interview with Bustle, King revealed she really appreciated Riggs: "I loved Bobby, he was one of my heroes. I wanted him to be appreciated, but the reason I beat him is because I respected him."
That, my dear readers, is the rollercoaster ride of a story behind King and Riggs's history-making tennis match. If you're curious to see the film and compare it with the real-life story, Battle of the Sexes is currently in theaters.
What do you think about the real story behind Battle of the Sexes? Let me know in the comments!