In 1961, at age 17, during her first outing to Wimbledon, Billie Jean King won the women’s doubles title. King would rack up a total of 20 Wimbledon victories, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, over the course of her trailblazing career. In 1971, she became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single season. In 1972, she was the first woman to be chosen Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” and in 1973, she became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association. However, significant pay disparities still existed between men and women athletes and King lobbied hard for change. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament to hand out the same amount of prize money to winners of both sexes. Bobby Riggs, 55, a 1939 Wimbledon champion, a former No. 1 ranked men’s player and a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, not agreeing with equality of women players boasted that women were inferior, that they couldn’t handle the pressure of the game and that even at his age he could beat any female player. King challenged the Rigg’s claim.
On this day in 1973, a highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match was held at Houstan, Texas. The match was a huge media event, witnessed in person by over 30,000 spectators and by another 50 million TV viewers worldwide. King made a Cleopatra-style entrance on a gold litter carried by men dressed as ancient slaves, while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by female models. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell called the match, in which King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. King’s achievement not only helped legitimize women’s professional tennis and female athletes, but it was seen as a victory for women’s rights in general.
King also established a sports foundation and magazine for women and a team tennis league. In 1974, as a coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, one of the teams in the league, she became the first woman to head up a professional co-ed team. The “mother of modern sports” retired from tennis with 39 Grand Slam career titles. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, was renamed in King’s honor.