Strange But True: The Battle of the Sexes

Bobby Riggs had won the biggest championship in tennis at Wimbledon, England, in 1939. But by 1973, he was 55 years old and more famous for challenging opponents to all sorts of weird matches.

“I’ll play you with a poodle tied to each of my legs,” he offered one opponent. He also played matches while wearing galoshes, sitting on a chair, and bundled up in a heavy overcoat. Whatever the handicap, Bobby usually won.

The real fuss started when Bobby declared that women couldn’t play tennis very well. “They look very pretty in their shots or miniskirts,” he declared, “but they’re really not much good. I can beat any woman player even now.”

The challenge was taken up by Margaret Court, a 30-year-old Australian who had won six American championships and three at Wimbledon. She was one of the two or three best women players in the world. Court and Riggs agreed to meet on May 13, 1973–Mother’s Day–at the San Vicente Country Club in Ramona, California. A prize of $10,000 would go to the winner and nothing to the loser (although the two would share the fees for broadcasting).

It promised to be a good match. Riggs had lost the steam in his service, but he played a very clever game. Court was steady and quick, and she was 25 years younger than her opponent. Before the match, Riggs kept emphasizing the importance of the match and seemed confident of victory. Then, just before the players went on the court, he presented Court with a beautiful bouquet of roses.

When the game began, Court seemed nervous and unsure of herself. Surprisingly, Riggs proceeded to run her off the court, winning in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1. Afterwards, the newspapers called it “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”

After Court’s defeat, Riggs’s challenge was taken up by Billie Jean King, who had won five Wimbledon titles. “She plays pretty good for a girl,” Riggs grinned. “But I can beat her. I can beat any woman.”

Angered, Billie Jean retorted, “Bobby Riggs is a male chauvinist pig, and I’m going to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.”

“Aha,” Riggs smiled, “We shall see who is the better player. Why, if she beats me, I’ll jump off a bridge.”

This time the purse was $100,000, and the match was staged at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Both Riggs and King also received a lot of extra money from promotion fees and endorsements. Riggs kept interest alive by giving numerous interviews, all while swallowing vitamin pills by the handful. The match was televised all over the United States, and to 36 other countries via satellite. Riggs was the favorite to win.

Bobby Riggs should have picked on someone other than Billie Jean King. She toyed with him, running Riggs all over the court until he was almost ready to drop from exhaustion. When it was done, Billie Jean had won in three straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Bobby Riggs had failed to prove that an old man could beat a talented young woman in tennis. But his boasting had led to one of the strangest sporting events in history.

From Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. I just watched the movie a few weeks ago, and had no idea of all the backstory in terms of Riggs’s gambling and marital problems. Funny thing is, whenever I hear about this tennis match, the first thing I think of is the story in this book.

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