NEW YORK – Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the legendary tennis “Battle of the Sexes” exactly 40 years ago Friday, serving notice of a new era dawning.
Before 30,472 people at the Houston Astrodome, still the largest crowd ever to watch aan American match, a 29-year-old King beat 55-year-old Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a victory hailed in 1973 as a triumph for women’s equality.
“My life is about equal opportunities for boys and girls, but women are so far behind, so it has taken up more of my time,” King said last month in interviews to commemorate the upcoming anniversary.
It was 40 years ago when the U.S. Open began offering equal prize money for men’s and women’s players — something every Grand Slam event does now — and this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the WTA Tour, which has championed the women’s empowerment message that King took to new levels.
“What this 40th anniversary has really been about is to understand the journey,” WTA chairman Stacey Allaster said. “She took the world on her shoulders. It was just incredible.”
Riggs, who died in 1995 at 77, had beaten Australian Margaret Court, who owns a record 24 Grand Slam titles, 6-2, 6-1 in May of 1973, playing up comments that women’s tennis was inferior and no top woman could defeat him even at age 55.
But King outplayed Riggs in the Texas showdown, ignoring the hype and hoopla around the promotion to silence his rants.
“Battle of the Sexes challenged the question of ‘why?’ with ‘why not?’ Empower yourself to pursue your dreams. That’s my vision,” King tweeted on Friday, in addition to thanking Riggs and the promoters and organizers who helped make the matchup become a cultural event.
“One of the most pivotal moments in sports history,” retired American player Brad Gilbert tweeted.
“Remember it well. Huge impact on generations,” said retired two-time teen U.S. Open winner Tracy Austin, who was only 10 when King beat Riggs.
King still pushes for equal treatment for women in areas of the world where limitations remain a part of their everyday life.
“We have a long way to go, but I think women’s tennis is such a great leader not only in women’s sports but for all women globally,” King said.
“Equal prize money is the message, not the money. It’s the message that we send through that word ‘equal.’”
Among those to congratulate King on the anniversary day via Twitter were singer Elton John, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, U.S. presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett and tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who said, “40 years ago today, equality rocked the world.”