Battle of the Sexes (tennis)
|Margaret Court vs. Bobby Riggs|
|Date||May 13, 1973|
|Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs|
|Date||September 20, 1973|
|Martina Navratilova vs. Jimmy Connors|
|Date||September 25, 1992|
Las Vegas, Nevada
In tennis, "Battle of the Sexes" is a term that has been used to describe various exhibition matches played between a man and a woman (or, in one case, a doubles match between two men and two women). Most famously, the term is used for a nationally televised match in 1973, held at the Houston Astrodome, between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, which King won in three sets. The match attracted massive attention and was viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world. King's win is considered a milestone in public acceptance of women's tennis.
Two other matches commonly referred to as a "battle of the sexes" include a match held four months earlier in 1973 between Riggs and Margaret Court, over the best of three sets, and one in 1992 between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, over the best of three sets and hybrid rules favoring the female player, dubbed "The Battle of Champions".
At least eight other exhibition matches have been played between notable male and female tennis players, starting in 1888, though only some of them were referred to at the time as a "battle of the sexes".
- 1 1973: Riggs vs. Court
- 2 1973: Riggs vs. King
- 3 1992: Navratilova vs. Connors
- 4 Other matches of men against women
- 4.1 1888: Ernest Renshaw vs. Lottie Dod
- 4.2 1922: Bill Tilden vs. Suzanne Lenglen
- 4.3 1933: Helen Wills vs. Phil Neer
- 4.4 1975: Challenge of the Sexes
- 4.5 1985: Battle of the Sexes: The Challenge! (doubles)
- 4.6 1998: Karsten Braasch vs. the Williams sisters
- 4.7 2003: Yannick Noah vs. Justine Henin
- 4.8 2013: Novak Djokovic vs. Li Na
- 5 Challenges that never came to be
- 6 References
1973: Riggs vs. Court
Riggs had been one of the world's top tennis players in the 1940s; he was ranked year-end World No. 1 three times and had won six major titles during his career. After he retired from professional tennis in 1951, Riggs remained a master promoter of himself and of tennis. In 1973, he opined that the female game was inferior and that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.
Riggs first challenged Billie Jean King, but when she declined, Margaret Court stepped in. At the time, Court was 30 years old and in the midst of earning her seventh year-end ranking as World No. 1 female player in the world. On the day of their match on May 13, 5,000 fans came to the Mother's Day match in Ramona, California. Televised by CBS Sports, Riggs descended the stadium steps and presented Court with Mother's Day flowers, which she accepted while curtsying. Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep Court off balance. His quick victory (6–2, 6–1) landed Riggs on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time.
1973: Riggs vs. King
Suddenly in the national limelight following his win over Court, Riggs taunted all female tennis players, prompting King to accept a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs in a nationally televised match in prime time on ABC that the promoters dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes." The match, which had a winner-take-all prize of $100,000 ($551,000 today), was held in Texas at the Houston Astrodome on Thursday, September 20, 1973.
Then 29-year-old King had earned her fifth year-end ranking as World No. 1 female player the previous year, and would finish second to Court in 1973.
King entered the court in the style of Cleopatra, on a feather-adorned litter carried by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the style of ancient slaves. Riggs followed in a rickshaw drawn by a bevy of scantily clad models. Riggs presented King with a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop, and she responded by giving him a squealing piglet, symbolic of male chauvinism. Riggs was given $50,000 ($276,000 today) to wear a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket during the match, which he took off after three games. Riggs also placed many bets on and invested a lot of money in the match.
King, who also competed in the Virginia Slims of Houston during the same week, won in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. In the first set, she fell behind 3–2 when Riggs broke her serve. In a 2015 interview, she said that most people do not remember that she was initially behind in the first set, and it looked bad for her in the early going. At this point, King realized that she "had to win" given the importance of the match, and broke right back and again in the tenth game to close out the set. She had learned from Court's loss and was ready for Riggs' game. Rather than playing her own usual aggressive game, King mostly stayed at the baseline, easily handling Riggs's lobs and soft shots, making him cover the entire court as she ran him from side to side and beat him at his own defensive style of play. After quickly failing from the baseline, where he had intended to play, Riggs dropped his comedic effect and showed a more serious demeanor, as he was forced to change to a serve-and-volley game.
A few critics were less than impressed by King's victory; she was 26 years younger, and some experts claimed that it was more an age versus youth game. According to Jack Kramer, "I don't think Billie Jean played all that well. She hit a lot of short balls which Bobby could have taken advantage of had he been in shape. I would never take anything away from Billie Jean—because she was smart enough to prepare herself properly—but it might have been different if Riggs hadn't kept running around. It was more than one woman who took care of Bobby Riggs in Houston." Before the match, however, King had forced the American television network ABC to drop Kramer as a commentator. King said, "He doesn't believe in women's tennis. Why should he be part of this match? He doesn't believe in half of the match. I'm not playing. Either he goes—or I go."
The match had an audience of an estimated 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide. The attendance in the Houston Astrodome was 30,472; as of 2012, it remains the largest audience to see a tennis match in the United States.
Allegations of match-throwing
There was also widespread speculation, based on Riggs' unusually poor play and large number of unforced errors, that Riggs had purposely lost the match in order to win large sums of money that he had bet against himself, as a way to pay off his gambling debts. ESPN's Outside the Lines on August 25, 2013 featured a man who had been silent for 40 years who said he heard several members of the mafia talking about Riggs throwing the match in exchange for cancelling his gambling debt to the mob. On the other hand, the article says Riggs' close friend and estate executor Lornie Kuhle vehemently denied he was ever in debt to the mob or received a payoff from them. The article also quotes Riggs' son who claims his father felt he had made a terrible mistake and was depressed for six months following the match. Riggs wanted a rematch but not King. He considered suing her as a rematch had been part of the contract. King and Riggs would appear together spoofing their rivalry less than two months after the match on an episode of The Odd Couple (titled "The Pig Who Came To Dinner") and they became good friends.
Kramer wrote, however, that "Billie Jean beat him fair and square. A lot of men—especially around our age—were so stunned when he lost that they figured he must have tanked. Budge is convinced of that. But what motive would Riggs have for that? Bobby Riggs, the biggest ham in the world, gets his greatest audience—and purposefully looks bad? There's no way. If he had beaten Billie Jean, he could have kept the act going indefinitely. Next they would have had him play Chrissy on clay." Selena Roberts claimed in her book documenting the match, A Necessary Spectacle, that Riggs later undertook a public polygraph test to prove he did not throw the match.
Effects on women's tennis
King viewed the match as more than a publicity stunt, feeling that beating Riggs was important both for women's tennis and for the women's liberation movement as a whole.  She said later, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem." She believed that she had a destiny to work for gender equality in sports.
Billie Jean was part of the Original 9, which formed the Virginia Slims Series, created because the women wanted to end inequality of pay between male and female victors. These nine women created their own tournaments and played wherever they could. Eventually this turned into the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
In popular culture
In 2013, New Black Films released the documentary movie Battle of the Sexes in cinemas, with television broadcast following soon after. It was directed by James Erskine and Zara Hayes. The film was released on DVD in 2014.
Nineteen years later, a third "Battle of the Sexes" match, entitled Battle of Champions, was played in 1992. Outdoors at Caesars Palace in Paradise, Nevada, it matched 40 year-old Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, age 35. Navratilova had previously turned down invitations to take on John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase, as she considered them undignified. The promoters initially tried to match Connors with the then top-ranked female player, Monica Seles. Connors called the match 'war.' Navratilova, on the other hand, called it a battle of egos.
A pay-per-view telecast, the match was played on Friday night, September 25, under hybrid rules to make it more competitive; Connors was allowed only one serve per point, and Navratilova was allowed to hit into half of the doubles alleys. Each player received a $650,000 guarantee, with a further $500,000 for the winner. Connors won 7–5, 6–2, as Navratilova made eight double faults and 36 unforced errors. Connors, too, was nervous and there was a rumor that he had placed a bet on himself to win at 4:1. According to Connors' book The Outsider, he placed a million-dollar bet that he would lose no more than eight games.
Other matches of men against women
1888: Ernest Renshaw vs. Lottie Dod
In 1888, the Wimbledon's men's champion, Ernest Renshaw, played a handicap match against the ladies' champion, Lottie Dod, where Dod was starting each game with a 30–0 advantage. The match was played in Exmouth, England, and ended with Renshaw's victory—2–6, 7–5, 7–5.
1922: Bill Tilden vs. Suzanne Lenglen
On May 27, 1921 Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen played a match at Saint Cloud, France. It was only a single set but Tilden prevailed 6–0. When later asked about the match, Lenglen said, "Someone won 6–0, but I don't recall who it was."
1933: Helen Wills vs. Phil Neer
Former NCAA champion Phil Neer played a two-set match against Helen Wills on January 28, 1933, in San Francisco. Neer had been ranked nationally as high as No. 20 and had occasionally played mixed doubles with Wills. Wills had won at Wimbledon the year prior. Though Neer was only 32, Wills won the match 6–3, 6–4.
1975: Challenge of the Sexes
October 26, 1975 a Challenge of the Sexes event was held in Mission Viejo, CA televised on CBS. It involved male and female athletes from various sports, such as Laura Baugh and Jane Blalock vs. Hale Irwin and Doug Sanders in golf, and Jerry West vs. Karen Logan in basketball. The tennis event pitted future Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade vs. Björn Borg, and Nastase vs. Evonne Goolagong. A single set was played where the men were limited to one serve and the women had the added area of the alleys for shot placement. Borg, Wade, and Goolagong entered the court in standard attire and demeanor, while Nastase entered wearing a dress. With Martina Navratilova also in the packed audience, Borg defeated Wade 6–3, but Goolagong defeated Nastase 7–5.
1985: Battle of the Sexes: The Challenge! (doubles)
On August 23, 1985, at age 67, Riggs returned to the tennis spotlight when he partnered with Vitas Gerulaitis, at the time a top-20 player, to launch another challenge to female players. He challenged Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver to a doubles match. Navratilova said that she accepted because she believed she and Pam had no weaknesses when playing doubles, and that they were going to 'do a Billie' and win, especially given Riggs' age. The match took place at The Atlantic City Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Riggs' health had deteriorated somewhat from his last outing as he was now deaf in addition to his poor eyesight. Moreover, because Riggs was a finesse player and not a power player, the women expected that defeating him would be easier than a retired power player. Riggs' return was short lived when the women won 6–3, 6–2, 6–4.
Mike Penner (of The Los Angeles Times) wrote: "The great misconception about 'The Challenge!' was that it might actually serve as a legitimate proving ground for the sexes." The sports writer went on to point out that there were things keeping this match from being seriously viewed as a legitimate challenge. "First, it was a doubles match, not a one-on-one competition. The strategy is different in doubles, weaknesses can be more easily masked and stamina is not nearly so critical a factor." The other point to be made: "Riggs amounted to a 67-year-old ball-and-chain shackled to the ankle of Gerulaitis. Riggs couldn't serve, couldn't return serves, couldn't hit overheads with any amount of force. Older than the combined ages of Navratilova and Shriver, Riggs was painfully out of place in this match. Even John McEnroe, on his finest day, would be an underdog against Navratilova and Shriver if Riggs were his partner."
1998: Karsten Braasch vs. the Williams sisters
Another event dubbed a "Battle of the Sexes" took place during the 1998 Australian Open between Karsten Braasch and the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena Williams had claimed that they could beat any male player ranked outside the world's top 200, so Braasch, then ranked 203rd, challenged them both. Braasch was described by one journalist as "a man whose training regime centered around a pack of cigarettes and more than a couple bottles of ice cold lager". The matches took place on court number 12 in Melbourne Park, after Braasch had finished a round of golf and two shandies. He first took on Serena and after leading 5–0, beat her 6–1. Venus then walked on court and again Braasch was victorious, this time winning 6–2. Braasch said afterwards, "500 and above, no chance". He added that he had played like someone ranked 600th in order to keep the game "fun". Braasch said the big difference was that men can chase down shots much easier, and that men put spin on the ball that the women can't handle. The Williams sisters adjusted their claim to beating men outside the top 350.
2003: Yannick Noah vs. Justine Henin
In December 2003, Yannick Noah and Justine Henin played a friendly match at the Forest National in Brussels. Noah donned a dress for much of the match. He played predominantly trick shots and slices, but still ended up winning 4–6, 6–4, 7–6.
2013: Novak Djokovic vs. Li Na
In October 2013, Novak Djokovic and Li Na played a light-hearted exhibition mini set in Beijing, China to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the China Open. Djokovic clowned to the amusement of the crowd, and at one point swapped places with a ballboy. Li was given a 30–0 advantage at the start of each service game, and she went on to win 3–2.
Challenges that never came to be
In 2013, Andy Murray responded to a Twitter user who asked whether he would consider challenging Serena Williams, saying, "I’d be up for it. Why not?" Williams also reacted positively to the suggestion, remarking "That would be fun. I doubt I’d win a point, but that would be fun."
In August 2015, John McEnroe was interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. At that time, McEnroe was 56 years old but still active on the seniors tennis circuit, Serena Williams was 34 years old and in the chase for a "calendar-year" Grand Slam. McEnroe mentioned to Kimmel that about 15 years prior, Donald Trump had suggested that he would like to put together a "battle of the sexes" match between McEnroe and Williams. McEnroe said he would face Williams but that Trump was not offering a big enough payout. McEnroe said that he believed he could defeat Williams in a tennis match.
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