Battle of the Sexes: The Real Story Behind the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs Tennis Match Up 

    In "Game, Set, and Match," sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind tells the story of how this famous tennis match came to be.

    In 1973, 55-year-old retired tennis player Bobby Riggs suggested that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s, and that even though he’d left the sport professionally 22 years prior, he could still beat the top female players of the day. 

    In his book, Game, Set, and Match, Herbert Warren Wind examines the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King – as well as other important professional matches that took place during the 1960s and 70s tennis boom.

    Though Riggs first challenged Billie Jean King—one of the best female tennis players in the world—she declined. Instead, another top female player, Margaret Court, agreed to face off against Riggs on Mother’s Day 1973. Riggs defeated Court in two sets, prompting King to step up and face him in the now-famous televised match, which had a winner-take-all prize of $100,000. 

    More than just a publicity stunt to King, she viewed the match as an important step for both women’s tennis and the women’s liberation movement—a movement in which she was heavily involved. Though King beat the 5-2 projected odds against her, more than a lump sum and her stats as a player were at stake in this match.

    In the new movie, Battle of the Sexes, which hits theaters on Friday, September 22, Steve Carell and Emma Stone face off as Riggs and King, respectively, and offer a fresh look at this empowering story. Watch the trailer below, and then keep reading for an excerpt from Herbert Warren Wind's Game, Set, and Match.

    Read on for an excerpt of from Game, Set, and Match, and then download the book. 

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    Game, Set, and Match

    By Herbert Warren Wind

    Game, Set, and Match

    By Herbert Warren Wind

    MRS. KING VERSUS MR.RIGGS

    (1973)

    The source is the “Guinness Book of World Records.” Listed under “Tennis” is an entry called “Greatest Crowd,” which goes like this: “The greatest crowd at a tennis match was the 30,472 who came to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, on September 20, 1973, to watch Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, over 25 years her senior, in straight sets in the so-called ‘Tennis Match of the Century.’” It wasn’t much of a contest. Riggs was in poor form, and Mrs. King, in just the right mood, played an almost perfect match.

    Billie Jean King’s spectacular triumph at Wimbledon, where she was at the top of her game in defeating Chris Evert in straight sets (6–0, 7–5), was just the thing needed to get the machinery for an autumn meeting between her and Bobby Riggs started again. The previous May, after he had defeated Margaret Smith Court with no trouble at all in their nationally televised match on Mother’s Day, there had been a lot of talk to the effect that he should next play Mrs. King to prove that his victory was no fluke, but nothing had been pinned down. Now, on her return from Wimbledon, there was spirited bidding among the television networks for the rights to a King-Riggs confrontation, and in mid-August the American Broadcasting Company announced that it would be televising the match in prime time on the night of Thursday, September 20th, from the Astrodome, in Houston, for a purse of a hundred thousand dollars—winner take all. Within a matter of weeks, the two participants had been deluged with all kinds of commercial tie-ins, and it became clear that the loser would pull in at least a hundred thousand dollars from these subsidiary gleanings and that the winner’s total haul would far surpass two hundred thousand.

    All this constituted an astounding coup for Robert Larimore Riggs, considering that, at 55e, he was 25 or 30 years past his prime time as a tennis player. In 1939, he had won Wimbledon; in 1939 and 1941, Forest Hills; in 1946, 1947, and 1949, the United States Professional Championship. As a professional, he had held a decided edge in his many meetings with the great Don Budge, but somehow Riggs’ exceptional talents—the dependability of his strokes, the shrewdness of his tactics—were underestimated, even when he reigned as champion, possibly because he had such a large supply of whatever is the opposite of charisma. He was too short: five-seven and a half. He had a pesty, chesty personality. (He became much more likable in later years.) Above all, he was a gambler—an honest, self-avowed hustler but a hustler nonetheless. This was one of the chief reasons he was continually in hot water with the United States Lawn Tennis Association during his amateur years. It was typical of Riggs that just before the 1939 Wimbledon tournament began he got down a bet of a hundred pounds at 3–1 odds that he would win the singles, and talked the bookmaker into letting the money ride, in the event that he took the singles, on the doubles at 6–1, and then on the mixed doubles at 12–1. He won all three titles and £21,600, or a hundred and eight thousand dollars. 

    battle of the sexes excerpt
    The real Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
    Photo Credit: Alchetron

    From his early years, Riggs, the fifth, and youngest, son of a Los Angeles minister of the Church of Christ, had to have some “action” going in order to enjoy his tennis thoroughly. Since his acuteness as a bettor soon got around, he was forced to invent all sorts of zany, offbeat wagers to lure the pigeons to his roost. There is a wonderful story—no doubt embellished over the years—of how, during his amateur days, he was pitted in an early round of one of the big Eastern tournaments against a run-of-the-mill player who would normally have been lucky to get more than two games in a set from Riggs. When their match had been in progress about an hour, some friends of Riggs’ walked over from the clubhouse to see how close he was to wrapping it up. They were astonished to find that the second set had only just got under way. Indeed, it took Riggs well over two hours to subdue his much inferior opponent. This was hard to believe to start with, but what made it all the more enigmatic was that the scores were 6–0, 6–0, 6–0. When his friends demanded an explanation, Riggs said, with a little smile, “I had a bet going that I could beat that bum love, love, and love without coming in past the service line. That’s why it took so long.” 

    According to locker-room lore, Riggs in time became a compulsive gambler; that is, if he lost a string of bets he had to keep on betting until he was cleaned out or finally broke his losing streak. For example, the story goes that in the summer of 1948, after losing a dozen or so bets running, he ran into Bob Falkenburg. Wimbledon champion that year, Falkenburg was not an outstanding all-round player, but at that time he unquestionably had the most powerful serve in the world. Riggs, in his desperation to win a bet, proposed to Falkenburg that they play a match for five hundred dollars. It would be for one set, and he was prepared to give Falkenburg a sizable handicap—five games and his serve. Somewhat stunned by this proposition, Falkenburg didn’t answer immediately, and, interpreting his silence as a sign of possible lack of interest, Riggs quickly added, “Also, I’ll wear an overcoat.” Falkenburg took the bet. Riggs, flopping around the hot court in a heavy camel’s-hair job, took the set 7–5. He was healthy again.

    Riggs’ penchant for hustling—first at tennis and later at golf, where he became a 3-handicap player and a deadly putter under pressure—helped to break up his two marriages. Last winter, after he had been out of the spotlight as long as Alida Valli and Steve Van Buren, he became news again. At that time, having become immersed in the booming new senior 45 and over) tennis circuit, he grew annoyed by the demands that Mrs. King and the other women stars were making for a larger share of the prize money at Wimbledon, Forest Hills, and the other traditional championships. He genuinely felt that the women simply didn’t deserve more money—they didn’t even play as good tennis as the best seniors did. To drive home his point, he declared that a man like himself, with one foot in the grave, could still beat the top women players. This led him to formally challenge Mrs. King to a match; he would put up $5,000—winner take all. Mrs. King turned him down, but Mrs. Court, whom he approached next, accepted his challenge. Riggs instantly launched a fantastic promotion campaign—among other things, billing himself in this age of women’s lib as the country’s No. 1 male-chauvinist pig—and he eventually stirred up such interest in the match that the Columbia Broadcasting System decided to televise it. It was held at the San Diego Country Estates, in an atmosphere that recalled the bizarre bygone era when heavyweight fights for the world championship were held in small, remote towns of the old West (Corbett vs. Fitzsimmons at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897; Jeffries vs. Johnson at Reno, Nevada, in 1910; Dempsey vs. Gibbons at Shelby, Montana, in 1923). 

    Work had been started only a few months before on the San Diego Country Estates, a resort development in the arid Cuyamaca Mountains, 50 miles northeast of San Diego, and close by Wildcat Canyon. The players, press, and officials were put up at the clubhouse of the San Vicente Golf Club, which is a part of the project. (Though the clubhouse was completed, only a few of the holes were, which is par for the course these days.) For the big match, the management put in a cement court and erected bleachers for thirty-five hundred spectators. During the first game—as early as that—it became evident that Mrs. Court, who throughout her career has been subject to strange crises des nerfs, was not herself at all. Riggs, for his part, was as relaxed as if he were in his own living room. He walked through the two sets, 6–2, 6–1, with an almost errorless display of controlled, soft-ball tennis. He had trained hard for the match and was in perfect trim. Under the direction of Rheo Blair, a Hollywood nutritionist, he had reduced from a 160 pounds to a 144 in eight weeks. He had followed a strict diet of protein and dairy foods, and had built himself up by taking four hundred and fifteen pills a day, containing liver extract, germ oil, vitamins, and predigested proteins. Blair is no man for halfway measures. The night before the match, he came down to the San Diego Country Estates and personally prepared Riggs’ dinner—a baked potato and an avocado salad.

    Because of the considerable interest in the Riggs-King match, which was to be held 11 days after the conclusion of Forest Hills, a good deal of extra attention was paid to Mrs. King’s progress from the first day of those championships. In winning her first two matches, she played quite well, but both on and off the court she looked a bit wan and seemed to have less verve than she had at Wimbledon. Some Riggs partisans, who regard him as the most gifted psycher since Rasputin, claimed that Mrs. King was already feeling the strain of her coming evening in the Astrodome, but most people attributed her lack of animation to the heat. 

    The day before the start of the championships, a fearsome heat wave, which was to last nine days, hit the New York area, and, with the temperature constantly in the nineties and the humidity intense, the field at Forest Hills found the going enervating. In the third round, Mrs. King came up against Julie Heldman, an experienced internationalist, who can play good, intelligent tennis on her day but who more often than not finds it difficult to maintain her patience and her concentration. (For some inexplicable reason, this match was scheduled not for the stadium court or the grandstand court but for the clubhouse court, which is distractingly noisy and also has such scabrous grass that old Bumpers Wingfield himself would have found it hard to cope with the bounces. Mrs. King and Miss Heldman did not like this court assignment at all.) 

    For a while, their match went much as one might have expected. Mrs. King, in fair enough form, won the first set, 6–3, and went to a 4–1 lead in the second. Then the pattern of play gradually changed. Mrs. King began to move more and more slowly to the ball, and Miss Heldman, encouraged by a series of passing shots, began to hit the ball more forcefully, especially with her forehand. She swept the next five games, to take the set, 6–4. After she had gone out in front 3–1 in the third, and deciding, set, she asked Mrs. King, who by then had slowed down to a walk, how she was feeling. Mrs. King replied that she felt as if she were going to faint but said she wished to continue. 

    When they were changing courts after the next game (Miss Heldman had won it, to lead 4–1), Miss Heldman, ready to begin play, asked the umpire if the minute’s rest allowed was up. Mrs. King then said, “Well, if you want it so much, you can have it,” and told the umpire she would have to retire from the match. Dr. Daniel Manfredi, the tournament’s chief physician, who examined Mrs. King, announced later that it was a good thing she had stopped play when she did, or she might well have collapsed in the 96-degree heat. He explained that Mrs. King, who had been suffering from a cold, had been taking penicillin, and that the combined effect of the drug and the tremendous heat had brought on chills and nausea.

    With Mrs. King’s unfortunate early departure, the women’s singles lost a good deal of their interest, naturally. The winner at Forest Hills was Margaret Court, who defeated Chris Evert in the semis and Evonne Goolagong in the final.

    Featured still of "Battle of the Sexes" via Fox Searchlight Pictures

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