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Pioneering women’s tennis star Billie Jean King beat former men’s champion ‘Rude’ Bobby Riggs in a highly publicized match, the so-called ‘Battle of the Sexes’, on this day in history, September 20, 1973.
The made-for-TV sports spectacle marked a turning point in the fight for equality for women in athletics.
King won the tennis match in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) in front of more than 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and millions more across the country and the world at the television.
“Not a day has gone by that someone hasn’t asked me about this game,” King told Fox News Digital in an email comment this week.
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“Fifty million people in the United States and approximately 90 million people around the world tuned in,” King’s website said of the game.
It was “one of the most-watched televised sporting events of all time” and “no tennis match before or since has been seen by so many people”.
Before the primetime broadcast on ABC, the two athletes did it for the cameras.
“King made a Cleopatra-style entrance on a gold litter carried by men disguised as former slaves,” writes History.com, “while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models.”
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Famed sportscaster Howard Cosell called the game, lending an air of grandeur to the festivities.
King, 29 at the time, was in the midst of a dominant run. The California native won the French Open, US Open and Wimbledon in 1972.
She defended her Wimbledon title just two months before the “battle of the sexes”, while winning eight other Grand Slam championships during her career.
Riggs, 55 at the time of the match, had been the highest ranked tennis player in the world in 1946 and 1947.
He burst onto the international scene when he won Wimbledon as a 21-year-old amateur in 1939.
Riggs, who died in 1995, was also an outspoken, self-proclaimed male chauvinist who publicly belittled female athletes. He gave King a giant candy lollipop before the match with “Sugar Daddy” written on it.
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His rude reputation made King’s victory much sweeter for his supporters around the world.
Along with lifelong acclaim, she landed a $100,000 payday in the win-win contest.
“This event was unlike any before,” longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer said in the magazine’s July event retrospective.
“No one had ever held a tennis match in a stadium like this. It was a Hollywood production.”
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Despite the overt showmanship, the pairing served to legitimize the skill of the competitors.
It was played just a year after the passage of the 1972 Education Amendments, best known for their Title IX, which opened up sporting opportunities for women at university.
“It was about social change, much more than tennis,” King has often said.
She saw it as a victory for female athletes around the world.
She said, as her own website notes, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win this game. It would ruin women’s football. [tennis] turn and affect the self-esteem of all women. Beating a 55 year old was not exciting for me. The thrill exposed a lot of new people to tennis.”
“It was about social change, much more than tennis.”
King in 1971 won over $100,000 in prize money and is believed to be the first female athlete to achieve this milestone.
“However, significant wage disparities still existed between male and female athletes and King pushed for change,” writes History.com.
“In 1973, the US Open became the first major tennis tournament to distribute the same amount of prize money to winners of both genders.”
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King remains a trailblazer to many around the world to this day. As she wrote in her autobiography, ‘All In’, published last year, she told her mother as a young child, “Mom, I’m going to do something good with my life – I know! You look.”
This included being the no. 1 tennis player in the world.