The ‘Hustler’ vs. the Feminist Champion: Inside the ‘Battle of the Sexes’


Ms. King, then 29, made headlines with her victory at the Astrodome. But she was already a star. Her name made regular appearances on The Times’s sports pages for years before she was challenged by Mr. Riggs, and she was known as a champion of gender equality and equal pay.

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An article about Ms. King’s victory over Mr. Riggs in The New York Times on Sept. 21, 1973.

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The New York Times

Mr. Riggs challenged her to a game because he was certain that female athletes were inferior — so much so that a young champion would not be able to beat a 55-year-old man “with one foot in the grave,” as he liked to put it.

Then as now, female athletes typically did not earn as much as their male counterparts. There was a lack of devoted trainers for professional female tennis players.

In a May 27, 1973, issue of The Times Magazine, an article headlined “Perfume in the Locker Room” delved deep into the experiences of female athletes.

For one thing, they have physical problems male athletes never face. One player admitted she dreads a match on the first day of her menstrual period. Another, Margaret Court, couldn’t figure out why her coordination inexplicably went askew at Wimbledon two years ago: she found out later that she was two-months pregnant.

Before the much-vaunted face-off between Ms. King and Mr. Riggs, there was another match. Mr. Riggs — having at first been declined by Ms. King — faced off instead against Margaret Court, another young tennis superstar. It was May 14, 1973: Mother’s Day. (Times coverage noted that Ms. Court’s son had thrown her tennis shoes in a toilet hours before the game.)

Mr. Riggs gave Ms. Court a bouquet of roses, and then the match began. He played smart, from backcourt, soft-balling, throwing the young tennis star off her rhythm. She seemed nervous. He won.

It was, as The Times put it the next day, “an unholy trouncing.”

And then Mr. Riggs set his sights, again, on Ms. King. “I want her, she’s the Women’s Libber leader,” he said.

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A Times article about the match from July 12, 1973.

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The New York Times

The Times published several profiles of Mr. Riggs, including one story that sprawled across seven pages in the Aug. 5, 1973, issue of the Times Magazine. It was headlined: “Portrait of a beautiful hustler.”

“Hustler” was one of a few words that came up over and over in descriptions of the aging tennis star. “Chauvinist” was another. “Skippy” came up once or twice, too, because Mr. Riggs was energetic and often funny — a self-aware, ebullient boor who knew how to turn provocation into profit.

And Ms. King was his perfect foil. She said she decided to play against Mr. Riggs after seeing Ms. Court so thoroughly defeated. “There was no point in this in the beginning, but now I think there is a chance since Margaret really got waxed,” she said, challenging him to a match for $10,000.

By the time the game was on, the winner-take-all prize was 10 times that amount.

When the two appeared together at a news conference at Manhattan’s Town Tennis Club in July 1973, one article described Mr. Riggs as an eccentric hustler with “hair colored from a bottle” who once “bet an opponent he could win while chained to a poodle.” It added:

While Mrs. King, sturdily built and dark-haired, peered owlishly through aviator glasses at her opponent at the Town Tennis Club here, Riggs spoke of his determination “to keep our women at home, taking care of the babies — where they belong.” He said that after he defeated her, “women’s lib will be set back 20 years.”

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Competing columns, by a male and a female journalist, about the match ran in The Times on Sept. 16, 1973.

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The New York Times

The Times got into the game, too, pitting a male and female journalist against one another, each predicting a different outcome. “She can run faster, hit harder, anticipate quicker than Riggs,” insisted Grace Lichtenstein in a column on Sept. 16, 1973. “Riggs is capable of raising his game to whatever competitive level he thinks it will take to beat Billie Jean,” wrote Neil Amdur in his reply.

But Mr. Amdur, like Mr. Riggs, was wrong.

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