Fifty years ago, two tennis champions took to the court at the Houston Astrodome to settle their differences. It was a match that would forever change the game of tennis for women, now known as “The Battle of the Sexes”.
The iconic match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King came off the back of significant advocacy towards equal pay for female players in the US Open. In 1973, the tournament became the first tennis grand slam to reach pay parity between men and women.
But Billie Jean King, a trailblazer for women in sport and the winner of the Battle of the Sexes match five decades earlier, knows there is still a long way to go.
“We’re here to celebrate a moment 50 years ago that changed our sport and all sports forever – equal prize money at the US Open,” she said in a speech at the 2023 US Open in New York City, celebrating the milestone.
“This journey to equality was not an easy one – or a quick one.
“We have set the standard for so many other sports, especially women’s sports, and that is one of the reasons women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.
“While we celebrate today, our work is far from done.”
Prior to the organisers of the US Open granting equal pay for men and women competitors in 1973, male players were paid almost eight times more than female players.
So when King won the grand slam in 1972, her third US Open win and seventh grand slam title, she threatened to not play at all the next year, unless the US Tennis Association closed the gender pay gap. Other female players that King rallied together also threatened to do the same and stood with her in solidarity.
The following year, in 1973, the US Open became the first sporting event to give equal prize money for men and women.
Michelle Obama spoke at the 2023 US Open event and acknowledged the powerful advocacy of Billie Jean King five decades ago.
“Billie Jean had a choice. She could put her head down, keep winning tournament after tournament, and just accept whatever cheque she was given,” Obama said.
“Or she could dig deep and break the serve. She could make a stand.
“Let us remember that all of this is far bigger than a champion’s pay cheque. This is about how women are seen and valued in this world.”
After the 1973 US Open, former world number one Bobby Riggs, who reportedly once declared women’s tennis to be inferior to men’s, challenged Billie Jean King to a game of tennis. Riggs was known for his sexist and misogynist remarks, especially in the lead up to the Battle of the Sexes match.
“There were folks like Bobby Riggs out there making ridiculous statements, like ‘Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen – in that order.’ Those were his exact words, believe it or not,” Michelle Obama said.
But King handled the build-up to the match with grace and resilience. Then, on September 20 1973, she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
“When we got to the net after the match, he said, ‘I underestimated you’,” she recalled in a recent interview with Good Morning America (GMA).
“And I couldn’t wait to see my dad because he always told my brother and me… ‘Always respect your opponent, even if you don’t like them.’
“I really respected Bobby.”
In the 50 years since the match, and since equal pay was given to US Open competitors, a lot has changed in the space of women’s sport. But tournaments like the FIFA Women’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, has highlighted how far there still is to go.
“We’re now at a tipping point where people are investing in us and believing in us because they think we’re going to make money,” King said on GMA.
“We have to keep working harder and harder because we have a long way to go.”
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