Remembering 'Battle of the Sexes'
Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the "Battle of the Sexes" match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It was a match that went beyond tennis and into the social stratosphere, a match that was a turning point in the women's movement and has been revered and scrutinized since.
From Chris Evert to Delia Ephron to Bud Collins, here are first-person accounts of "where they were" during King's historic win:
Casals was the longtime doubles partner of Billie Jean King, with whom she won one US Open and five Wimbledon championships. She is the founder of Sportswoman, Inc., a marketing and promotion company that specializes in celebrity and charity tennis events.
What stands out to me now is how many people were there and at all the bars, and all the excitement there was surrounding the event, not only there but in the days leading up to it.
I remember the telecast with Howard Cosell, and going down to the court and looking for Billie Jean and talking to her before the event, and her looking at me with those baby blue eyes and saying, "There's no way I'm going to lose," and I said, "I know that." If she said she was going to do something, I believed her.
But my strongest memory was the energy and excitement, because it was something I had never seen before. I had seen the excitement of Wimbledon and the US Open, which was more boisterous, but this was one of a kind. They tried to repeat it with Martina [Navratilova] and Jimmy Connors at Caesars Palace [in 1992], but nothing holds a candle to [the Battle of the Sexes] and I was glad I was a part of it.
I don't think [Billie Jean] was intimidated. I think she was nervous and understood a lot better than Margaret [Court] what this match was all about and its importance in the big scheme of things -- not just for women's tennis, but for women, period. You could feel the tingling and nervousness and excitement. You knew this was something big. And Billie Jean handled it really well, even better than Bobby.
She was definitely in better shape, had a better game and was solid; she prepared really well and he did not. Riggs thought he was just going to walk on the court and she was going to roll over and she did not. She beat him at his own game. I hate to even think what would have been if she had lost. ... I'm definitely happy I was a part of it and there to witness one of the greatest shows on earth.
The ESPN analyst won 18 Grand Slam singles championships and three doubles titles.
I was on an airplane; I didn't see the match live, but I did see it afterward. It was a fiasco. It was carnival-like, and so much bigger than a tennis event. It transcended just the tennis fan. It was a show.
I watched Margaret Court [against Riggs], and that was so staid and low-key and conservative, no fanfare. [The Billie Jean King] match was a total party. Even the actual tennis was overshadowed by the significance of the outcome.
I was 18 years old and was very protected -- I lived in Fort Lauderdale, went to Catholic school. My dad was the head of the family and my mom was a homemaker, and it was a whole new world me. I didn't fully understand the impact that it would have on tennis, women in sports, women in the workplace. It came at an age when I was still in high school, when I was starting to get out on the tour, starting to get out in the world. I was really hanging out with my high school buddies.
Around that time, I looked at the news and Gloria Steinem was burning bras and there were these marches -- I felt so removed from that. It just didn't seem to affect me and my little life. If I was 5 years older and had known Billie Jean ...
After that, she mentored me on the significance of equality.
She won 64 major titles in her career -- 24 in singles (a record that still stands today), 19 in doubles and 21 in mixed doubles. Before the King match at the Astrodome, Court faced off against Riggs on May 13 in Ramona, Calif., a match that was later dubbed the "Mother's Day Massacre" after Riggs' 6-2, 6-1 victory.
I'm not sure where I was [at the time of the match] ... but I think Billie Jean could beat him because I really thought that about myself, too. I did watch it [after the fact, later on]. Billie was a very tremendous competitor and I know she had played team tennis. She wouldn't let any of those things get through her and [Riggs] was very much into show business and she handled it very, very well.
Bud Collins is a legendary Boston Globe columnist, TV sportscaster and tennis historian for more than 50 years whose name is synonymous with the game.
It was wild, of course, with a lot of husbands and wives betting on the match. Nora Ephron came with [New York Times writer] Grace Lichtenstein. They brought a lot of money with them from other New York feminists and took it to Bobby's hotel room and he said, "Aw girls, you don't want to waste your money betting against me, do you?" They got upset and said they'd get their money after the show and Bobby told them, "No need, because I'm going to win."
There were a lot of Hollywood types and quite a few writers there. I went up to my sports editor the week before and said, "Well, I guess I'll go to Houston," and he said, "What for?" I said, "Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs," and he said, "Nobody's interested in that." Two days before the match, he said, "We better cover this."
It was bigger than most sporting events and everybody was excited. But the women [players] who were there from the tour were scared Bobby would win. He had beaten Margaret Court, who was ranked No. 1 at the time, and they were as nervous as anything.
Billie Jean was confident. She was mad at me because I picked Bobby. Just before the match started, she said, "How can you pick against me?" because we were such old friends and I said, "I want you to win," and she walked away in a huff.
I was worried about her because she had been ill the week before at the US Open. She didn't look very good there. ... The whole thing was tasteless in a way, but at that stage, with the women's tour just beginning, anything would help them except Billie Jean losing. She was the right person to do it because Court couldn't handle the pressure and Billie Jean lived for pressure throughout her career.
She and Bobby became friends after all the insults that were thrown before the match. She saw him just before he died and they were pals, and Bobby said to Billie Jean, "I guess we made a difference, didn't we?" and she said, "I guess we did."
The best-selling author, screenwriter and playwright watched the match on television; her sister, Nora, was at the match. She shares her impressions.
I remember how nervous I was.
Back then, Ted Tinling made those awful dresses. It wasn't until Chris Evert came along, and didn't use him, that things improved. She wore such cute outfits. I remember Billie Jean King coming in on the float, it was so awful. And while it was a silly event on the surface, it meant so much. We were all consumed by it, all of us in the women's movement.
[The match] was just theater. It was performance art, symbolic more than anything else. I always wanted to meet Billie Jean, I admired her so much. Usually, when you meet a celebrity, it can't live up to the expectation. But meeting her was such a thrill. We know men are stronger than women, but Billie Jean's importance to women and the women's movement was and is so important.
Navratilova, who was not a U.S. citizen at the time of the match, won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Billie Jean King once called her "the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived."
I was out of the country, I didn't know enough about it. Now, of course ... it was a monumental time. I was pretty clueless at the time and couldn't watch. I would've gone there if I had been in the country, I would've gone to watch but I couldn't.
The Australian won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including three at Wimbledon (1967, 1970, 1971).
[Riggs] was the perfect guy for that [match]. He made a meal out of that. I think the best thing that happened to him was the number of young girls that flocked to his side before the match started, and by the time the match came, he was exhausted [laughs].
Austin, a TV analyst for Tennis Channel, is a two-time US Open winner and the youngest inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
I was at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club, the club where I grew up. It was packed. It was very loud, everybody was cheering. I remember cheering for Billie Jean because I'd watched Margaret lose to Bobby -- the Mother's Day Massacre -- and my sister Pam was actually in the Astrodome, so I was very aware of what was happening at a young age. I knew it was men against women. I think I was 10.
I had met Billie before that, in fourth grade. She came to the club to do a commercial and she'd watched me practice a little. I did a book report on her that same school year.
I was impressed with her athleticism. It wasn't a tennis match, it was an event. It exceeded tennis. Even at my age then, you could feel that. I think it made little girls think -- that she's looking for equality for women. It opens your eyes to women in sports. If somebody doesn't mention these things, you don't become aware. I think it was important listening to her speak about wanting more opportunities for women. At 10, that doesn't [sink in] completely, but it's a start.
Shriver is an ESPN analyst and former tennis professional who won 21 Grand Slam women's doubles titles, all but one with Martina Navratilova.
I was 11 and I remember watching with our babysitter and my older sister, who was 13. Our parents were at a party at our tennis club in Baltimore. I distinctly remember watching the match. I remember after the first set, it was never close. I remember that I had never seen a tennis match like it and I can remember the buildup. I even have a trash can decorated with all the newspaper clippings that my godmother gave to me that year for Christmas or my birthday. I still have it back in Baltimore.
Even five years before joining the tour, it was probably the tennis match from my childhood that I most remember, more than any Wimbledon or US Open final.
I knew they called it the "Battle of the Sexes," but I was too young to understand the social connection. I don't remember my parents spending a lot of time explaining what was going on, the gender politics they probably felt at the time. I wouldn't remember the questions I might have asked, just in simple terms that it was a win for women and a loss for men.
I can also remember how unusual it was for a sporting event. It was the only time I ever saw Howard Cosell doing a tennis match and a tennis match being on ABC prime time. When I usually watched a tennis match, it was not on that time of day.
The former British tennis star, a Wimbledon singles finalist and doubles champion, watched the "Battle of the Sexes" on television.
Both [matches] really epitomized the character of these two women. Margaret Court ... a very magnanimous person; she's an introvert, quietly spoken. Billie Jean King ... the exact opposite. I don't think Margaret responded to the ballyhoo that went on in America with that first match, and Billie Jean responded in spades. ... She had to do something about it, and the more brouhaha that went on ... the better she liked it, and it enhanced her personality. Because of that, [King] played very well and she got underneath the skin of Bobby Riggs, which Margaret Court didn't.
Coming [into the arena] on a chariot with feathers, it just appealed to her very much and it made her feel on top of her game. She was there to strut her stuff [laughs] and she did.
espnW columnists Melissa Isaacson and Jane McManus, ESPN bureau producer Willie Weinbaum, and ESPN.com investigative reporter Don Van Natta contributed to this report.