Was the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs fixed?

December 17, 2010

Dear Cecil:

As I just turned 70 and know my time on earth is limited I'd appreciate an answer to my question. Years ago I watched on TV the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Just before the match it was announced that King would be able to hit to the doubles court while Riggs would have to hit to the smaller singles court, and also that he would only get one serve to her two. I cannot get confirmation of this. I have searched all over for a video of the match and it doesn't exist. My question: was the tennis match played fairly?

Cecil replies:

Don't worry, Wayne. I bumped your question to the front of the line so you can die a happy man.

Let's go back to a year in history featuring an unpopular President embroiled in scandal, a pointless war that was winding down after killing thousands of American troops and untold numbers of the enemy, and a country sliding into recession. No, I don't mean 2008, I mean 1973.

The architect of the manufactured drama in tennis that year was Bobby Riggs, who’d been a number-one-ranked singles player in the 1940s but at age 55 was well past his prime. Possibly envious of the big bucks women tennis players were starting to command and fully aware of male grumbling about women's lib, Riggs decided to stage a money-making publicity stunt: a showdown between himself and a top female player, to demonstrate that women’s tennis was plainly inferior to the men’s game.

Riggs pursued Margaret Court, Chris Evert, and Billie Jean King, three of the top four women’s players that year. King and Evert turned him down, but Court, attracted by a prize of $10,000 even if she lost, accepted. Big mistake. Riggs went on a months-long heavy-duty training regimen and waged a relentless campaign in the press aimed at psyching Court out. His strategy worked, and their match on Mother's Day, 1973, became known as the "Mother's Day Massacre," with Riggs dominating the best-of-three-sets event 6-2, 6-1.

Riggs — a genuinely maddening figure to feminists of the day — then stepped up the media blitz, giving bombastic interviews, appearing in photo shoots as Henry VIII, even playing a match in drag. He hounded King for a second battle of the sexes. After much soul-searching, King agreed to a $100,000 winner-take-all purse plus at least $75,000 per player in ancillary rights.

But this time things were different. King scrutinized Riggs's match with Court and determined to play hard and keep him running, using his age against him. Twenty-nine and at the peak of her game, she trained like a prizefighter, while Riggs spent the time before the match drinking, sleeping with assorted admirers, and keeping up a constant stream of media antics, rarely setting foot on a tennis court to practice. Nonetheless, Jimmy the Greek gave Riggs 5-2 odds to win.

The pair met in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973. The preliminaries were pure kitsch — King was carried in on a litter like an eastern potentate, Riggs rode in a gilded rickshaw pulled by a squad of women. But things got serious once the match began. With the inimitable Howard Cosell in the broadcast booth, 30,492 spectators in the building plus millions watching on TV saw King kick Riggs's butt. She relentlessly attacked with a fierce net game, and Riggs soon knew he was in trouble. "Comedy has gone out of Bobby Riggs," Cosell intoned. By the end of the match, which he lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Riggs felt every one of his 55 years.

Was it all (you should pardon the expression) rigged? My assistant Una acquired a tape of the original broadcast and watched the entire match, commercials and all. She confirmed that the competitors played by the same rules and said King clearly dominated from the start. Riggs, though outclassed, gave no impression of taking a dive — on the contrary, he was so apparently confident he'd get a second wind that after losing the first game he tried to make a $10,000 bet he'd win the match. He later took a much publicized lie detector test to support his insistence he hadn't thrown the contest, a story he stuck with to his dying day.

You and other doubters are likely conflating the King-Riggs event with a 1992 match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, which Una also watched on video. This was a far less heated affair, with the two players amiably discussing beforehand how the game would raise awareness of the sport. But the 40-year-old Connors was a much more formidable competitor than Riggs had been, having reached the U.S. Open semifinals the previous year, and Navratilova was 35 herself. So, to even things up, Connors was limited to one serve per point and Navratilova was allowed to hit into half of the doubles alley on each side of the court. Despite the handicap Connors won 7-5, 6-2, taking just 88 minutes to make half a million bucks.

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References

Amdur, Neil "Mrs. King Defeats Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Amid a Circus Atmosphere New York Times 21 September, 1973.

"BACKTALK; 'I Was Quick. I Was Agile. I Had the Heart' " New York Times 27 August, 1995.

Berger, Phil. "TENNIS; Connors, Navratilova Play Just For Fun" New York Times 24 September, 1992.

Holden, Anthony "Battle of the Sexes" Sports in the 20th Century - CBS Sports

"How Bobby Runs and Talks, Talks, Talks" Time 10 September, 1973.

Oates, Bob "His Last Match Can't Be Rigged - In Ill Health at 77, Tennis' Greatest Hustler Recounts His Triumphs--and a Memorable Defeat" Los Angeles Times 15 April, 1995.

Reeves, Phil " Tennis: Money takes all in the sex war: Phil Reeves in Las Vegas sees dollars minted on court as Jimmy Connors overwhelms Martina Navratilova" The Independent 27 September, 1992.

Roberts, Selena. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game Random House, 2005.

"Sport: How King Rained on Riggs' Parade" Time 01 October, 1973.

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