Last week, tennis celebrated the 40th anniversary of what possibly is the single-most important event in women’s sport, a turning point in the movement for gender equality.
Immortalised as the “Battle of the Sexes”, the match took place on September 20, 1973, with 30,472 fans packed into the Houston Astrodome, a record for a tennis match in the United States. Another 90 million watched the event on TV.
It was a made-for-TV spectacle, with Billie Jean King, 29, a five-time Wimbledon champion, arriving on court like Cleopatra, in a gold litter carried by four men dressed as slaves. Bobby Riggs, 55, was wheeled in on a rickshaw pulled by a bevy of models.
A self-proclaimed “male chauvinistic pig”, Riggs had been goading King for a match for some time. The women’s world No 1 had, however, turned him down, but Margaret Court, 30 and a 22-time grand slam singles winner at the time, decided to take up his offer instead.
Court lost that match, known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre”, 6-2, 6-1 and King was forced to accept Riggs’s challenge to avenge that humiliation. “The only reason I’m playing him is because Margaret had to go out and play like a donkey,” King said.
Fighting for the honour of the fairer sex, King drubbed Riggs’ 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a match.
It was heard at home as well and the US Open, who had paid the women’s champion US$15,000 (Dh55,080) less than the male champion in 1972, decided to offer equal prize money that year, becoming the first tennis major to do so.
That same year, the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation came into being.
“Billie Jean King paved a path for me and for others,” Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Fame basketball player and women’s sports pioneer, told ESPN recently. “Billie Jean King did her part and her legacy is never to be tarnished.”
But some recent revelations may have done just that. Last month, ESPN’s Outside the Lines featured interviews with a man who claimed he had heard members of the mafia talking about Riggs throwing the match in exchange for cancelling his gambling debts.
Those rumours have been around for 40 years, but both Riggs and King have denied it.
“People said I was tanking, but Billie Jean beat me fair and square,” Riggs said in an interview just months before his death in 1995.
Male chauvinists should take Riggs’s word for it and lay to rest these conspiracy theories. Allegations of tanking do more harm to male pride than Riggs’ defeat – it questions our integrity, and we could do without that.