Battle of the Sexes (tennis)

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Battle of the Sexes I
Margaret Court vs. Bobby Riggs
Set 1 2
Margaret Court 2 1
Bobby Riggs 6 6
Date May 13, 1973
Location Ramona, California
Battle of the Sexes II
Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs
Set 1 2 3
Billie Jean King 6 6 6
Bobby Riggs 4 3 3
Date September 20, 1973
Location Houston, Texas
Battle of the Sexes III
Martina Navratilova vs. Jimmy Connors
Set 1 2
Martina Navratilova 5 2
Jimmy Connors 7 6
Date September 25, 1992
Location Las Vegas, Nevada

The Battle of the Sexes is a title given to three notable tennis matches between a male and a female player. The first match was between Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court, over the best of three sets. The second was a nationally televised match between Riggs and Billie Jean King, over the best of five sets. The Riggs v King match was officially dubbed The Battle of the Sexes. The final match was between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, over the best of three sets and hybrid rules favoring the female player, which was dubbed The Battle of Champions.

1973: Riggs v Court[edit]

Bobby Riggs had been one of the world's top tennis players in the 1940s; he once held the number 1 ranking 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.[1] 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.[2]

Riggs first challenged Billie Jean King, but when she declined, Margaret Court stepped in. At the time Court was 30 years old and the top female player in the world. On the day of their match, May 13, 1973, 5000 fans came to Mother's Day match in Ramona, California. Bobby Riggs came out on court and presented Margaret Court with Mother's Day flowers, which she accepted while curtsying.[3] During the match, Riggs used his drop shots and lobs to keep Court off balance. His 6–2, 6–1 victory[4] landed Riggs on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.[5][6]

1973: Riggs v King[edit]

Paraphernalia from the Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs match

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 that the promoters dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes". The match, which had a winner-takes-all prize of $100,000, was held in Houston, Texas on September 20, 1973.[7]

Riggs was given $50,000 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.[8][9]

King entered the Astrodome in Cleopatra style, carried aloft in a chair held by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the style of ancient slaves.[10] Riggs followed in a rickshaw drawn by a bevy of scantily clad models.[10] Riggs presented King with a giant lollipop and she gave him a piglet. In the first set, King initially fell behind four games to two. In a 2015 interview, she stated that most people don't remember that she was initially behind in the first set, and it looked bad for her in the early going. She followed by stating that, at that point, she realized that she "had to win" given the importance of the match.[11] King had learned from Court's loss and was ready for Riggs' game. Rather than playing her own usual aggressive game, she mostly stayed at the baseline, easily handling Riggs's lobs and soft shots, making Riggs 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 affect and showed a more serious demeanor, as he was forced to change to a serve-and-volley game.[12]

A few critics were less than impressed by King's victory. King 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."[13]

After the match, Pancho Segura declared that Riggs was only the third best senior player, behind himself and Gardnar Mulloy, and he challenged King to another match. King refused.[14] Despite some of the comments downplaying the loss by Riggs (or victory of King), following the match Riggs was "devastated" and isolated himself in his hotel room for four hours.

The match had an audience of an estimated 90 million worldwide (50 million in the US). The attendance in the Houston Astrodome was 30,472, as of 2012 the largest audience to see a tennis match in the US history.[15]


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.[16] 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.[16] 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.[citation needed]

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 lie detector test to prove he did not throw the match.[17]

In recent years, a persistent urban legend has arisen, particularly on the Internet, that the rules were modified for the match so that Riggs had only one serve for King's two, and that King was allowed to hit into the doubles court area. However, this is false; the match was played under the normal rules of tennis. The rules were modified for the Connors v Navratilova match in 1992, which may be the source of the confusion.

Effects on women's tennis[edit]

For King, that match was more than just beating Riggs. She was a women's activist and believed in equal pay for men and women. King wanted men to respect women more, which is why it was so crucial for her to win. She said, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," knowing that all of the hard work would be wiped away otherwise. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."[18] She believed that she was born to work for gender equality in sports.[19]

Billie Jean was part of the Original 9, which formed the Virginia Slims Series, created because the women were sick of the inequality of pay between the men and women victors.[20] These nine women created their own tournaments and played wherever they could. Eventually this turned into the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).[19]

1992: Navratilova v Connors[edit]

A third "Battle of the Sexes" match, entitled Battle of Champions, was played at Caesars Palace in Paradise, Nevada on September 25, 1992 between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova aged 40 and 35 respectively. Navratilova had previously turned down invitations to take on John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase as she considered them undignified.[21] 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.[22]

The match was played under hybrid rules to make it more competitive; Connors was allowed only one serve per point, and Navratilova was allowed to hit into half the doubles court. Each player received a $650,000 guarantee, with a further $500,000 for the winner.[23] Connors won 7–5, 6–2.[24] Navratilova made 8 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 the Connors book "The Outsider" he placed a million dollar bet on himself, saying that he would lose no more than 8 games.[25]

Other male vs female matches[edit]

1888: Ernest Renshaw vs Lottie Dod[edit]

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.[26]

1922: Bill Tilden vs Suzanne Lenglen[edit]

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."[27]

1933: Phil Neer vs Helen Wills[edit]

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.[28][29]

1985: Battle of the Sexes: The Challenge! (doubles)[edit]

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 and wore glasses. 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.[21] Riggs' return was short lived when the women won 6–3, 6–2, 6–4.[30]

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."[31]

1998: Karsten Braasch vs. the Williams sisters[edit]

Another event dubbed a "Battle of the Sexes" took place during the 1998 Australian Open[32] between Karsten Braasch and the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena Williams, aged 17 and 16 respectively, 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".[33][34] The matches took place on court number 12 in Melbourne Park,[35] after Braasch had finished a round of golf and two beers. 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.[36] 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".[37] 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.

Two years later, an 18-year-old 4th-ranked Serena Williams claimed she could compete with men in professional sport; the US Open champion believing she could take on and beat the best players in the men's game.[38]

2003: Yannick Noah vs Justine Henin[edit]

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.[39]

2013: Novak Djokovic vs Li Na[edit]

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.[40]

Challenges that never came to be[edit]

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."[41]

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 boasted that he believed he could take Williams in a tennis match, but he joked that he would not be so confident if it were a boxing match.[citation needed]


In 2001, ABC aired a television film about the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs titled When Billie Beat Bobby, starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver as King and Riggs respectively.

In 2013, New Black Films released a 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.

On April 20, 2015 Fox Searchlight announced a film based on the King/Riggs match called Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with Emma Stone and Steve Carell playing King and Riggs respectively.[42]


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