Wellesley Women Remember a Tennis Match that Symbolized the Ongoing Battle of the Sexes

Billie Jean King bends down low to send the ball back over the net during the match with Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome
Photo provided by AP Photo
September 20, 2017

Forty-four years ago today, September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in a tennis match for the ages, the famed “Battle of the Sexes.”

King, then 29 with 10 singles titles under her belt, stunned Riggs, 55 and a former Wimbledon champion, beating him in three straight sets.

Nadine Levy Netter ’66, a tennis player who won the Eastern Women’s College Tournament championship in 1962 and was inducted into the Wellesley Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016, still recalls King’s victory and the publicity buildup prior to the match. She bet a male friend $100 that King would win.

“I had that check framed and put behind glass,” said Netter, who watched the match on television. “I never cashed it. Bobby Riggs was a cagey, mouthy kind of guy, and Billie Jean trained and took it seriously. She was not undone by his personality.”

Connie Bauman, professor of the practice in Wellesley’s Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Athletics (PERA), also recalls watching the match with friends. “I remember the days before the match and wondering how things would be if Billie Jean lost,” said Bauman, who was teaching in a school district in suburban Chicago at the time. “Would it be a setback? But she won, and we were all going crazy.”

Months earlier, Riggs had defeated Australian tennis star Margaret Court in an exhibition match, and he had set his sights on King. Riggs reveled in calling women “broads” and making sexist remarks. He bragged that he could beat any female tennis player who stepped on the court against him. In the weeks leading up to their match, Riggs taunted King.

In an atmosphere crackling with suspense, King and Riggs took the court in the Houston Astrodome before 30,000 spectators. Another 50 million people watched on television, including viewers who watched by satellite in 36 foreign countries. It was a winner-take-all match, with a $100,000 prize.

King’s trailblazing victory had repercussions that are still felt today. (In fact, a new movie titled Battle of the Sexes is scheduled for release this Friday.) She went on to launch the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) in 1974 in San Francisco, just two years after Title IX was enacted, prohibiting discrimination against girls and women in federally funded education. From this platform, King and other advocates campaigned for young women’s participation in sports.

In a statement released in June, the WSF said the number of girls participating in sports has increased from 1 in 27 to 2 in 5 since the passage of Title IX.

That legislation and the increasing visibility of women athletes such as King inspired young women like Karyn Cooper ’92, an NCAA national tennis champion and member of Wellesley College’s tennis team. “Belonging to a team and being part of Wellesley athletics was like having an extended family away from home,” said Cooper, who was one of the inaugural inductees of the Athletics Hall of Fame.

“My team taught me so much about sharing, about discipline, being a role model, about hard work, organization, persistence, in living a healthy lifestyle, but most importantly, to be humble and thankful of everyone and every accomplishment,” she said.