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LOOKING BACK: Billie Jean King, The United States

It's hard to imagine the pressure Billie Jean King felt that day in 1973, as four musclebound men in togas carried her atop a gold litter, a la Cleopatra, into the Houston Astrodome. Already established as one of the greatest players in women's tennis, King was about to play a retired male tennis champion nearly twice her age. Uber-chauvinist Bobby Riggs, who was ushered in on a rickshaw by scantily clad women, had bragged about certain victory and even bet large amounts of money on his sure win.

Before she played Riggs in the notorious 1973 match, King had done much to advance women's rights, on and off the court. A fireman's daughter who had won Wimbledon, she chafed at having to moonlight as a playground instructor. She led boycotts of tournaments whose purses for women were a fraction of those for men, even walking off the court with her opponent in one final. She formed a lucrative women's circuit and became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a year. The top prizes for men and women equalized at the 1973 U.S. Open, the same season her crusade carried her into the match with Riggs, billed as the "Battle of the Sexes."

Riggs had beaten another top-ranked women's tennis star, Margaret Court, only months earlier. And his rhetoric raised the stakes: "I'll put Billie Jean King and all the other women's libbers back where they belong — in the kitchen and the bedroom."

In the new book "Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don't," author Paul Sullivan notes that a loss would have been doubly devastating for King, who just a year earlier had pushed for the passage of Title IX, which requires colleges to fund men's and women's sports equally: "If she then went down to Bobby Riggs, as Margaret Court had, the one-two punch would have been disastrous for the equality movement she had associated herself with."

But King didn't choke. Not even close. She won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. "A straight-sets victory, which more than anything dispelled myths about women as mentally frail under pressure, couldn't exist as a simple feminist flash," wrote King biographer Selena Roberts. "It had to be a spectacle to be remembered forever … In front of a worldwide TV audience of 90 million, Billie knew social change needed witnesses to move people."


When an oppressed people are given an opportunity, they will make the best of it and you must never, ever, underestimate the human spirit.

- Billie Jean King

SOURCES: 1 “Billie Jean won for all women,” Larry Schwartz, undated archives, 2 Sullivan, Paul, “Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t,” Portfolio/Penguin, 2010. 3 Roberts, Selena, “A ray of progress for women as Battle of the Sexes turns 35,” Sports Illustrated, Sept. 20, 2008. 4 ”A Woman’s Place is Here,” Mei Fong and Rebecca Blumenstein, Wall Street Journal, Aug 22, 2008. Link: 5 London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) website archives. Photo Credit: © Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy.

Photo Credit: © Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy